HC Deb 25 February 1972 vol 831 cc1667-72
Mr. Leslie Huckfield (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement about the 36 drums of cyanide found near Bermuda village, Nuneaton, on 24th February.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

Preliminary investigations suggest that between 3 p.m. on 23rd February and 9 a.m. on 24th February, 36 drums containing sodium cyanide ash were dumped on a site forming part of a disused brick clay workings near Bermuda village, Nuneaton.

The drums were found by a local resident and the police were informed. The drums were guarded while police investigations were commenced and arrangements made by the local authority with a firm of waste disposal contractors for the dumped material to be removed to a treatment plant near Southampton.

The waste was loaded on to a covered vehicle by 9 p.m. on 24th February and the vehicle was kept overnight in the firm's Evesham depot. The vehicle was expected to arrive at Southampton by about 10.30 a.m. today. There it will be examined and the appropriate action taken to treat the substances contained in the barrels.

Police investigations are continuing, and I am assured that if the culprit is found the local authority will not hesitate to bring a prosecution.

The House will agree that one cannot condemn too strongly the actions of those who illegally dump poisons which could easily result in the deaths of children.

Mr. Huckfield

Since I was in Nuneaton last night, may I convey to the Secretary of State the thanks of my constituents for acting so swiftly? May I also convey to him the deep anxiety of my constituents and of people everywhere that this sort of thing continually goes on, especially when in this instance it was a place where children frequently play? May I ask, first, whether he has any further information about the possible police lead of which I have heard mention? Can he give us the latest position about the local investigations? Can he also tell the House something about the legislation or revision of legislation which I understand he is considering, and, since the other night we managed to make the Army in Northern Ireland legal in seven hours flat, can we not have legislation on this subject a lot quicker?

Mr. Walker

On the first point about the police lead, I have no further information other than that investigations are proceeding. Obviously the police are most anxious to find the culprit. As to future action, last April I introduced a code of practice, which was agreed by local authorities and industry, dealing with the dumping of such materials. Provided that the code is complied with there could be no possible danger to the public. I hope at the earliest opportunity to make that code of practice statutory, and I also hope to increase the penalties for this type of action. I must warn the House that even with the code of practice which is basically complied with by the great bulk of British industry, we shall not stop the thoroughly irresponsible person dumping poisonous substances late at night in places quite apart from dumps. It is the catching of such people that presents great difficulty for the police and local authorities. I hope that we shall very quickly be able to make statutory the provisions which have already been agreed in the code of practice.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there is any significance in this unpleasant cargo being sent to a South Coast port? Will he take this opportunity to look at the practice of dumping in the sea, particularly with regard to solid atomic waste which is being officially dumped in the sea in containers that will last for only an estimated 15 years?

Mr. Walker

As to dumping at sea, my hon. Friend will know that we have reached agreement with most North Sea countries on control of dumping at sea, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, has signed the agreement on behalf of this country. The reason the material has been sent to Southampton is that there is the best place to treat this kind of matter.

Mr. Denis Howell

Is the Secretary of State aware that the whole House will wish to condemn this latest act of dumping as one of sheer criminal lunacy which might have had the most widespread consequences for a lot of people? What causes us a great deal of concern, and I am sure the Secretary of State will agree, is that, following recent cases which have had widespread publicity, these fly-by-night operations are still going on. In these circumstances there will be a great deal of hesitancy about waiting for the right hon. Gentleman's legislation to be brought forward, and we take note of his own words about the difficulty of enforcement even after legislation. In these circumstances, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that we on this side of the House would be glad to give him full support for any emergency action felt necessary which he cares to propose positively to outlaw any dumping of this sort of poisonous material? We would include measures for the stiffest penalties, including, possibly, imprisonment, to make it clear how Parliament condemns this sort of anti-social behaviour?

I would also ask about the local authorities' powers. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that they are adequate having regard to the further difficulty that we have experienced this week? Have they full powers of inspection and of continuous and vigorous inspection of all dumps and dumping grounds?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first point about legislation and making statutory the Code of Practice. I am grateful for the cooperation he has offered. Local authorities have powers of inspection. We sent out last April a circular on this topic and on the new code of practice to which they all agreed. I am following this up with a detailed survey. I am asking them through a very detailed questionnaire to survey all sites in their areas. This will give us a very full survey of all existing sites. I fear that the increasing problem is not of the official sites which they survey and inspect; it comes from the completely unofficial and thoroughly illegal dumping. I wish to make it clear that it is not because there are no penalties for this action. It has always been illegal to dump something which is a danger to public health.

Mr. Adam Butler

Many of the constituents of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) work in my constituency and so I am particularly concerned about the risk to their children which this episode has thrown up. May I ask my right hon. Friend if he will do everything to encourage local authorities to bring to court those who are responsible for this act, which can only be described as one of criminal negligence or stupidity?

Mr. Walker

No one could be more anxious than is the local authority concerned to bring a prosecution in this case. The difficulty is to find the person responsible for the act. I am sure the whole House will hope it will be quickly done.

Mr. Pardoe

While recognising the right hon. Gentleman's determination to stamp this practice out, may I ask him what would be the maximum penalty if a prosecution were successful and to confirm that it compares ludicrously with a sentence under, for instance, the Drugs Act or the Obscene Publications Act? Would he indicate his determination to write into this new legislation methods of ensuring that lorry drivers themselves individually do not "cut corners"?

Mr. Walker

What I would hope to lay down would be a system whereby any dangerous cargo of goods would have to be accompanied by the appropriate documentation which would make it clear to people where official dumping can take place. The penalties are inadequate. I am advised that there are a number of ways in which prosecutions could be brought, but a penalty would be of the order of £100, which is totally inadequate to a crime of this nature.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is my right hon. Friend aware that responsible elements in the waste disposal industry—and they constitute the majority—would welcome the earliest possible introduction of legislation with real teeth in order to ensure that practices of this kind are stopped for all time?

Mr. Walker

Yes. My Department has had talks with the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors and with chemical engineers and geologists. They are advising us. Alas, it is not the responsible section who are the offenders. It is the thoroughly irresponsible ones who find the cheapest way of getting rid of poisonous waste and dumping anywhere they like.

Mr. Darling

Would the Secretary of State agree that we have a very good code of practice if it can be enforced, but that something more is needed? We must lay down statutory rules about treatment of waste before it is dumped. In view of the fact that, very fortunately, we are to have a debate on pollution next Friday—so I understand—would not this give us an opportunity for an exchange of views, and would the Minister undertake to bring to the House his proposals for strengthening legislation so that we could have a general discussion here and provide ideas which he might find useful and put into operation?

Mr. Walker

There are a number of matters concerning the code of practice which we can do immediately apart from statutory enforcement. I hasten to add that whatever the rules may be the few irresponsible people who do not keep them will continue not to keep them, even after the code of practice is statutory. There is a major review of Government policy on pollution not only by dumping but by other pollution and by noise. I will look at the possibility of a discussion upon it in the House.

Mr. Howell

It is the case that some industrial firms must be getting rid of poisonous waste by some fly-by-night contractors. Will the right hon. Gentleman take note of the fact that when we discuss this matter we on this side of the House will want to make it responsibility under the law for a firm disposing of waste to do so in a satisfactory way which safeguards the public? Would he say a little more about the speed of legislation? If it were likely to be held up for a reasonably long time we would want to press ahead in supporting him in emergency legislation.

Mr. Walker

We have a number of things in mind. I think we could introduce quickly, with the co-operation the lion. Gentleman has offered, what is accepted by responsible industrialists who dispose of waste in a responsible way and pay the proper price for treating and disposing of it. I agree that this would be the basis of the law.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think we should now proceed to the Orders of the Day.

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