HC Deb 19 February 1968 vol 759 cc192-202

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

11.20 p.m.

Mr. John Horner (Oldbury and Halesowen)

Most people are aware that the transport of petroleum spirit in bulk through the cities, towns and along the roads of these islands is strictly regulated under legislation which this House approved 30 years ago. I believe that few people are aware that the transport of substances which in certain circumstances can be equally as dangerous as petroleum spirit takes place in considerable quantities every day along the roads and through towns and cities of these islands without any regulations to control them and subject to no statutory precautions. They are an ever growing hazard to the public and a very real danger to the members of the emergency services, particularly the fire services, who are called in to deal with the effects of the increasing number of accidents involving tanker lorries which are laden with these uncontrolled inflammable and explosive cargoes.

If few people would credit that statement, I think hon. Members will find it incredible that for nearly 10 years the Home Office has been trying to work out a means of identifying and clearly marking these dangerous tanker lorries but so far have achieved no success, let alone attempting to tackle the job of controlling the use of these lorries. That decade of ineptitude and delay on the part of the Home Office has been punctuated from time to time with assertions by various Ministers that action was about to be taken. Those assertions have usually been followed by long periods of apparent inactivity so that firemen, who are particularly concerned about this matter, have almost abandoned hope that the Home Office will ever succeed in finding a solution to this not very complex problem.

The years of delay and the unfulfilled promises have now become a bad joke in the fire service. It is a joke which could turn to tragedy. If their luck runs out and firemen are killed because of the Government's failure to give the fire service the help it needs to deal with these growing dangers, the account I now propose to give the House of the many years of delay will clearly show where the blame must be squarely placed. That luck can run out tonight.

About ten years ago, it became clear to all concerned that the rapid and continuing growth of transport by road of an ever mounting number of new and dangerously inflammable explosive and corrosive chemicals in uncontrolled quantities in unsupervised tankers and lorries needed some regulation and control. In 1959, therefore the Home Office set up a Working party on Inflammable Substances. So far as I can trace, 1959 was the year of its first and last meeting. It did set up however a committee, another working party, to tackle the job of identifying and making these dangerous road tankers.

In September 1961, the Scottish fire service was involved in Perth in a serious incident when an unmarked tanker which was filled with about 2,000 gallons of a highly corrosive but, to the firemen, unknown substance led to the Scottish local authorities wanting to know from the Scottish Home Department what was being done to bring under control the hazards which arise from the movement of these highly dangerous cargoes along our roads. According to the Scotsman, a Home Office spokesman was reported to have said that A scheme for such control has been accepted in principle but has not yet been finalised". A few months later, in Hereford, an unmarked tanker containing 4,000 gallons of styrene was involved in an accident. There being no marking, the firemen did not know what the substance was with which they had to deal. There were, therefore, urgent public demands made to the Home Office by chief fire officers for some sort of action.

A few months later, in West Bromwich, a lorry carrying methyl peroxide, again unmarked, blew up, damaging about 16 houses, injuring 30 people, who were admitted to hospital, and doing nearly£100,000 worth of damage. To quote the report of the chief fire officer on that occasion, Seeing his lorry was on fire, the driver took it to a piece of waste ground. One cannot help wondering what would have been the casualty list if this explosion had occurred in a busy town centre". The lorry had just left Walsall and was to travel to Oldbury. Oldbury is in my constituency. If that lorry had blown up in the busy town centre of Oldbury, I cannot imagine, as the chief fire officer says, what the casualty list would have been.

Again, there was a demand from the fire service, particularly from the Fire Brigades Union, for control and marking of these tankers. In July, 1962, the Home Secretary's Advisory Council for the Fire Service was told by the Home Office that a code of tanker markings had been circulated to local authorities for their observations. I have not been able to trace that code.

In the following year, members of the emergency services in Cheshire were involved in a dangerous incident when an overturned tanker lorry, again unmarked, turned out to be charged with a highly dangerous compound, a compound of lead oxide. In fact, the men turned yellow, and remained yellow for many days. The compound was so dangerous that, had it been ingested by the men to any degree on that occasion, they could have suffered considerably. So the Cheshire County Council and the Urban District Councils Association approached the Home Office again for action on these poisonous cargoes. They were told that the matter was now with the Ministry of Transport and with the Home Department.

In 1965, the Lancashire County Council, whose fire brigade is almost weekly engaged in dealing with incidents involving chemical cargoes carried by tankers, because Lancashire is one of the main centres of the chemical industry, approached the Home Office. In April 1965, The Guardian reported a Home Office spokesman as saying, International agreement on the carriage of dangerous chemicals by road is imminent. It was so imminent that the following month the Under-Secretary of State, in answer to a Question, said that there was now no hope of getting international agreement and that therefore the working party which had been set up in 1959 was to be disbanded and a new body, called the Standing Committee on Dangerous Substances, would be established to deal with the whole business urgently.

Firemen, who have been waiting for years for a simple system of marking dangerous loads so that they could readily know what they were dealing with in the case of fire or accident, might be forgiven if they wondered what all the rigmarole was about international agreement being necessary and then not being obtained. In April, 1966, all chief fire officers were told by the Home Office that it was preparing a set of symbols for use as tanker markings. Later in the year the Under-Secretary of State announced that draft regulations had been settled and would come into effect in 1967. In answer to a Question in April, 1967, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that the regulations would be applied soon. Here we are in the early months of 1968 and the fire service is still awaiting them.

Meanwhile, the list of near-misses mounts up. Sheer mathematics tells us that there is not much time left before we have a disaster. In September, 1966, a tanker and trailer containing about 33½tons of butane were hit by a locomotive and trapped on a level crossing at Harwich. The tanker carried no markings. Last autumn firemen in Yorkshire were called to deal with a tanker marked as carrying formic acid. They later discovered that they were dealing with butane alcohol, which has a flash point just two degrees Fahrenheit above that of petroleum spirit. Last year, a tanker out of control crashed into Dewsbury town hall. Firemen were called by the police to a tanker crash involving butane. The driver was dead. The tanker was in fact loaded with liquid ethylene, one of the most highly explosive materials now being carried on the roads of this country.

What do firemen want? First, they want a simple system of marking dangerous tankers. With the driver very often unconscious or dead, they want a system whereby they know immediately whether the cargo with which they are dealing is inflammable, explosive, toxic or corrosive. They want to know its chemical base, and whether it should be handled by foam or water and so on.

Incidentally, if water had been used on liquid ethylene in the Dewsbury case it would have been fatal not only to the users of the water but to anyone within a very considerable radius of the accident.

Firemen want control of the vehicles in a manner identical to that in which the Petroleum Act controls the passage of petroleum spirit through our towns. They want the same parking regulations as that Act imposes on tankers carrying petroleum spirit. They want limits set to the amount of these dangerous substances that are carried. Above all, they want the Home Department to get a move on. They want an end to the deplorable story of delay and ineffectiveness.

A chief fire officer writing to me a few weeks ago says: The lack of any regulation dealing with these dangerous cargoes is an affront to the citizen, who looks to the legislature for protection. It is a crime against a fireman whose duty it is to deal with such substances whenever a mishap occurs. He adds: The Home Secretary has repeatedly promised that regulations would be made. I hope they will be made and introduced before there is a tragedy and not as a posthumous gesture to public opinion. I can tell my hon. Friend that the fire service will study with great care what he has to say tonight.

11.36 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this subject. I only wish there was a better attendance of hon. Members because it is a most important topic. If a lack of international agreement is the cause of the delay, I hope that the Home Office will produce regulations without worrying about international agreements, because we need them here whatever difficulty there is in obtaining them abroad.

I hope that the anxiety about the future of the Explosives Department of the Home Office is not also the cause of the trouble. I understand that there is a move to transfer part of it to the Ministry of Transport. The Department seems to have worked very well while it has been under the Home Office, and I hope that it will be kept under the Home Department as a united body. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that that possible move, which I know is causing some anxiety, is not the cause of the delay in producing the regulations, which will be vitally important.

11.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Ennals)

My hon. Friend is an expert on this subject, and his long association with the fire service gives him every right to bring it forward, and particularly to do so on behalf of the firemen with whom he has worked for so many years. I cannot rival him in his knowledge and expertise, but I assure him that I share his desire to see that everything possible is done to ensure the safe carriage by road of the many dangerous substances which are essential nowadays to our industrial effort.

I should first explain to the House, perhaps, that a number of legal controls exist already. The conveyance of explosives is already strictly controlled by regulations made under the Explosives Act, 1875. The main instrument of control for other substances is the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act, 1928, the provisions of which can be extended, by means of an Order in Council, to any substance. This control applies at present to petroleum spirit, petroleum mixtures, carbon disulphide and a few permanent gases when compressed into metal containers. The regulations under both Acts specify such matters as maximum loads, the manner in which the dangerous substances must be packed and loaded, and various other safety requirements. Apart from explosives, my hon. Friend mentioned inflammable materials. There is little doubt that the inflammable material carried on our roads in the greatest quantity is petroleum spirit, and, as I have explained, this, too, together with petroleum mixtures, is already strictly controlled.

In addition to petroleum spirit, many other inflammable liquids are carried by road, although the quantities are considerably less. But these, too, ought to be regulated. I shall speak of the delay in making appropriate regulations in a moment, but first I wish to remove the impression sometimes created—some of my hon. Friend's remarks may have given the impression—that just because there are no regulations dangerous substances are always being carried on our roads in a highly dangerous state. This is not so. In the first place, there are the general requirements of the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations, 1963.

Then there are the precautions taken by industry itself. A considerable amount of research is constantly conducted by the chemical industry, on its own initiative, into safety in conveyance, and the Chemical Industries Association has recently issued a valuable code of guidance to its members on the safe conveyance by road of a great many substances. In consultation with us, moreover, the Association proposes to introduce a scheme of chemical information cards. These cards, carried by drivers, will describe in clear language and symbols the risk involved and the action to be taken in the event of an emergency on the roads. They will serve not only to assist in vehicle care but also the emergency services.

There will always be a few whose less responsible attitude may endanger others, and we have no doubt that regulations are needed, if only to give statutory backing to some practices already adopted in industry as a whole. My hon. Friend mentioned delays in introducing appropriate regulations. I accept the timetable of delay to which he has drawn attention and understand his sense of frustration and that of the firemen on whose behalf he speaks.

I do not want to go into the history of this matter. He wants to know what we are going to do rather than the causes of difficulty. I assure him that I accept the urgency of the task, and I will tell him our programme. There is no need for him or his friends in the fire service to despair.

In 1965, the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances was set up with comprehensive terms of reference and a balanced and representative membership covering central and local Government and industry. The Committee's function is to advise the Home Secretary on the control of dangerous substances, with particular reference to their storage and carriage by road. In practice, the bulk of the Committee's work is carried out in technical sub-committees, whose meetings are attended by the best available experts in the United Kingdom. There are four at present dealing, respectively, with the packaging and labeling of dangerous substances carried by road; the operation of vehicles carrying such loads; the construction of the vehicles concerned; and problems connected with the storage of petroleum spirit and related products.

The Committee decided at its first meeting towards the end of 1965 to give priority to proposals for regulations dealing with four classes of dangerous substances—inflammable liquids, corrosives, poisons and organic peroxides. The regulations, apart from certain basic safety requirements, will be confined in the first instance to the marking of vehicles and packages. This is the most pressing need, because the emergency services need to know at once what kind of dangerous substances are being carried on vehicles which may be involved in an accident. The first set of regulations dealing with over 200 inflammable liquids is almost ready and will be laid before Parliament very soon—in April, I hope.

The preparation of these regulations has taken many months, partly because of the technical difficulties involved in identifying the many substances concerned, and partly because of the protracted negotiations with industry which were necessary so as to resovle the practical difficulties created for it by the terms of the new regulations. It is clearly essential to work in close co-operation with industry, because unduly restrictive regulations would not only increase production and marketing costs but would put the United Kingdom at a disadvantage in international markets.

The need to reach the right balance between the requirements of safety and commercial advantage tend, in practice, to produce many problems. As a result of the experience we have gained, we hope that regulations for the other priority classes I have mentioned will follow more quickly. A considerable amount of spadework has been done on regulations dealing with the labelling of other dangerous substances, namely, corrosives and organic peroxides, during conveyance, and I hope that these will be ready by the end of the year. I hesitate to make any prediction at present about the making of regulations for the labelling of poisons—the other class to which the Committee decided to give priority—if only because there is a limit to the amount of work which can be handled simultaneously.

Once the Committee can turn its attention to poisons, I do not expect the preparation of regulations to take very long. It should not be forgotten that the Poisons Rules, 1966, already provide safeguards for the conveyance of listed poisons relating to packaging and labelling. A number of other tasks still await the Committee's attention—for example, packaging, mixed loading and operation and construction of vehicles, although work on the last of these has already begun. The Committee's future programme is very full in respect of the priority classes alone. One other major class remains to be tackled—compressed and liquefied gases. This is a matter to which we shall turn our attention as soon as the Home Office Gas Cylinders and Containers Committee has presented its report. My right hon. Friend expects to receive this report in April.

International negotiations have long been going on in this whole field. These have resulted in the European Agreement on the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Attached to the Agreement, which came into force towards the end of last month, are very full technical annexes relating to goods and vehicles and comprising a detailed and comprehensive safety code covering a wide range of dangerous substances. In view of the growing volume of road traffic which crosses international frontiers, it is clearly desirable that domestic regulations should be in accordance with the provisions of these technical annexes, and this has been done as far as is acceptable in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom throughout has been closely involved in these international negotiations and has strongly influenced the final form of the Agreement.

The hon. Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) referred to his concern about the staffing in the Explosives Branch. I can assure him that this is under review. In any case, there has been some slight increase in the staff of the Explosives Branch. This has not been one of the reasons for the delay in bringing forward the regulations to which I have already made reference. The question whether part of this responsibility should pass to the Ministry of Transport is being examined at the present time and certainly no decision has been taken on this point. It is being looked at between Departments.

To sum up, explosives, petroleum and some other dangerous substances, when conveyed by road, are already subject to strict control. By April, I hope that over 20C, inflammable liquids will be added to the list of substances controlled, and by December about 135 corrosives and 40 organic peroxides.

Mr. Homer

Is it intended that the inflammable liquids shall be controlled in a manner similar to that applying to petroleum spirit?

Mr. Ennals

I cannot at the moment indicate the precise nature of the control, but, as I said, the regulations themselves will be coming forward in April and my hon. Friend will have an opportunity of seeing them then.

As I said, by December we hope to have about 135 corrosives and 40 organic peroxides controlled by regulations. If we can achieve these targets, we shall go a long way towards meeting the immediate requirements of the emergency services—fire, police and ambulance—as well as others whose business is the safe conveyance of dangerous substances by road.

I assure my hon. Friend that 1 share his sense of urgency in this task. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has set a programme of work, accepting as he does that this is a matter of urgency, and it is a matter which has been too long delayed. Matters are well in hand and I think my hon. Friend will be satisfied with the progress report when it comes forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Twelve o'clock.