- (1) The Corporation shall be absolutely liable in civil proceedings in respect of damage caused by gas in a gas mains or pipe used for the supply of gas to consumers which is escaping from or has escaped from any such gas mains or pipe.
- (2) For the purposes of the law of tort liability under this section shall be regarded as arising from a duty owed by the Corporation to the person suffering the damage, and in section 1 of the Fatal Accidents Act 1846 references to a wrongful act, neglect or default shall include references to any occurrence which gives rise to liability under this section.
- (3) Subject to the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 where the person suffers damage as a result of his own fault (including in that expression the fault of his servant or agent) the Corporation shall not be responsible for the damage.
- (4) In this section 'damage' means loss of life, personal injury and damage to property; and in relation to Scotland, for the reference to the law of tort there shall be substituted a reference to the law of reparation.—[Mr. Golding.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ 11.38 a.m.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
I am moving the new Clause on behalf of the Opposition. It shows our concern that giant corporations enjoying vast resources and having access to great wealth should not be put in a privileged position.
The Opposition are firm advocates of public ownership, because we believe that private ownership has led to the misuse of economic power in the community and because we believe that, far from enhancing human dignity and freedom, private enterprise reduces them, and so we support nationalisation. We support nationalisation because we believe that with the removal of the private profit motive, the relationship between management and men may be improved when men believe that their welfare and, in this context, their safety are placed before 893 the profit motive, and we believe that in consequence they will be happier at work.
The new Clause attempts to redress the balance between a giant corporation—a State corporation—and private individuals. We put forward the Clause because we do not want to create a situation of State capitalism. We want our State industries to be more accountable and more responsive to the needs of individuals.
The issue before us this morning, stated very simply, is whether the Gas Board should pay compensation in those cases where gas accidents, mainly explosions, have led to loss of life, injury or damage to property. At present under the Gas Act, 1965, the gas authority is absolutely liable for damage caused by an escape of gas from an underground gas storage. At common law it is liable for damage resulting from an escape of gas from mains or a piped flow only if negligence can be established against the authority.
The public has to deal with two situations: first, the situation that exists when gas escapes from an underground storage when the gas authority is under an absolute liability; and, secondly, the situation which exists when gas escapes from pipes from a distribution system in which the gas authority is not absolutely liable.
If our new Clause is adopted, as we sincerely hope it will be, it will have the effect of making the new Gas Council absolutely liable for damage caused by an escape of gas from any gas mains or pipe, as it is now absolutely liable for damage caused by an escape of gas from an underground gas storage.
I shall refer to this item in a little more detail later, but at the outset I wish to make it absolutely clear that what the new Clause will not do is to make the new Gas Council absolutely liable for explosions which take place in the home as a result of defects in domestic appliances over which it could be said that the gas authority, the Gas Council, could have no control.
§ Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West) rose—
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Golding
I am reluctant to give way now. Perhaps a little later I will give way to my hon. Friend.
894 One part of my argument is that in the new Clause we have confined absolute liability only to those situations in which the Gas Council or other public authorities have absolute control. We have not attempted to extend the scope of the new Clause to those situations where it could be perhaps rightly argued that other persons are responsible because of their own failings.
The Post Office Engineering Union has taken counsel's opinion on the law as it at present stands and it does not appear to be very clear. I shall try to summarise that legal opinion.
Under the provisions of the Gas Act, 1948, gas boards are required to supply gas under certain conditions. Therefore, the boards are under a statutory obligation to supply gas. Since Parliament at that time foresaw that in carrying out such a duty gas may escape, that Act provided for penal liability for failure to rectify a gas escape within 24 hours of receiving notification in writing of such an escape. It has long been felt that where an authority is under an obligation under statute to supply gas, damage caused by its escape is not actionable without negligence, though one exception to this rule is underground storage. This particularly applies in a claim for nuisance.
The advice given to the POEU was that the decisions of the courts and the provisions of the Gas Act, 1948, make it absolutely necessary for the law to be amended if the public is to be fully protected against the hardship caused by gas explosions following leakages from gas pipes. We should like to have from the Minister the Government's view about the complex state of the law.
My interest in this subject stems from experiences in my constituency and from representations made to me by the POEU. I have taken up two constituency cases which highlight the injustice of the law as it stands—one case resulted in damage to property and the other case resulted in death. I consider loss of life and injury to be much more important matters than damage to property and I hope to argue that point on later Amendments.
On 31st December, 1968, an explosion occurred in an unattended automatic telephone exchange situated behind some 895 shops in the main street in Newcastle Road, Madeley, Staffordshire. This occurred during the life of my predecessor, Stephen Swingler, who was then the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. Stephen Swingler wrote to the then Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Power, my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson). My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East who was then the Minister, said in a letter dated 28th January, 1969:A gas leak was reported in the early hours of 31st December and an emergency team from the Gas Board went to the spot to trace the source of the gas. The explosion took place an hour or so after their arrival in the automatic telephone exchange. It appeared that gas had escaped into the exchange from a fracture in the main under the roadway, but this is not yet established firmly or in detail. No one was injured but the exchange was as a result damaged, nearby cars, flats and shops were damaged. A large number of windows were broken. The Gas Board admit no liability. They insure against this kind of risk and the matter is with their insurers. This is the normal position a board takes in these circumstances. It follows that they cannot join issue direct with your aggrieved constituents, though they did authorise without prejudice and with the householders acknowledging this, the repair of damaged windows at the Board's expense. I think that the best course would be for your constituents to submit claims and consult with their insurers or their legal advisers. This is how the issues are dealt with in other cases, and the circumstances do not seem to warrant by-passing these processes by a public inquiry.On Stephen's death, this case was taken up, during the temporary absence of a Labour Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). On 29th August, 1969—a delay of eight months from the time of the accident—the West Midlands Gas Board wrote to him saying that a letter had been received from the Board's insurers as follows:Our enquiries into the above explosion revealed that as a result of a fractured gas main, gas entered GPO underground ducting and from there travelled to and collected in a GPO automatic telephone exchange. The probability is that, as the Press reports indicate, an automatic operation inside the exchange ignited the gas and the explosion occurred. We are quite satisfied that the gas main did not fracture as a result of any negligence on the part of the Board and as a consequence we do not consider any legal liability rests with the Board. Therefore, although we have the utmost sympathy for the numerous third parties, we have no alternative 896 but to decline legal responsibility on behalf of the Board.The insurance company, we were told, proposed to write on the above lines to all the claimants.
This case illustrates the injustice which can be done to ordinary people. As a result of this incident, involving without a shadow of doubt two nationalised industries, neither of which would accept responsibility, one of my constituents, Mr. J. Wilton, was unable to secure compensation for damage amounting to £26 to his garage. When I compare the annual turnover of the gas authority and the annual turnover and revenues of the Post Office telecommunications business with the income of Mr. Wilton, it seems to me that £26 becomes a major issue of principle.
Not only was Mr. Wilton's garage destroyed, but a property company, Lower Mill Properties, which owned a block of flats, also suffered loss. I do not care quite so deeply about its loss. Being a business, those concerned could well look after themselves. However, this company has been trying until January this year to get redress, but unsuccessfully.
I do not propose to read the correspondence which I have had with the Department about this case; the Undersecretary of State will be well aware of it. But it became apparent to me from correspondence with the Department of Trade and Industry that it had no intention of changing the strong and privileged position of the gas authority. Far from being concerned with defending the interests of the individual, the Government have preferred to defend the interests of the giant, financially strong public corporation.
This impression of injustice has been reinforced in my mind in recent weeks in dealing with a case involving the death in March this year of a 77-year-old Newcastle-under-Lyme man, Mr. Stubbs. At his inquest, as reported in the Newcastle Times, a neighbour of Mr. Stubbs, Mr. Spender, said that before the explosion he and his family smelt gas. He called the gas board's emergency service and extinguished all naked flames within the household. Soon after the telephone call, a gas fitter arrived and found that the leak was coming from outside. Mr. Spender said that the fitter was just about 897 to warn Mr. Stubbs of the danger when there was a terrific blast and the next thing he knew was that there were crowds of people outside. Mr. Stubbs caught fire and subsequently died.
§ 12 noon
According to the report in the Newcastle Times, Mr. R. A. Addison, assistant regional engineer of the West Midlands Gas Board said that the outside gas leak had been reported and, after an investigation, the main gas pipe was found to have a circumferential fracture. Houses in that area, he said, had been converted to North Sea gas by September of last year by the Servotomic Company Limited. He explained to the coroner that the gas had dispersed through the ground to the nearest house. The mains pipe was over 50 years old and in those days carried gas of half the pressure of North Sea gas. Mr. Addison said that he thought the increased pressure of the gas had nothing to do with causing the fracture. In his opinion the fracture was caused by ground vibrations and movements. Mr. Hails, the coroner, said:
It seems to me that double the pressure of gas in a main which is 50 years old would almost certainly show up the weak spots.
Then comes a most important point which the Minister should note carefully. After Mr. Addison had explained that before the conversion all mains underwent "a limited visual investigation", Mr. Hails said:
It is only when somebody is killed that a thorough investigation takes place.
In giving evidence on oath at an inquest it was admitted that before conversion only a limited visual investigation took place. I agree absolutely with the coroner that it is only when somebody is killed—and that person was Mr. Stubbs—that a thorough investigation takes place.
§ I will not read the correspondence that I have had with the Department; it will be familiar to the Minister. It is clear from the correspondence that the relatives of the dead man will be faced with enormous difficulties in proving negligence. The reason, which is contained in a letter sent to me by the Minister, is that the assessment of the causation of a gas explosion is made by the gas board. It is only too easy for gas board area en- 898 gineers to assert, as they do in this case, that the piping has been damaged by the pressure of traffic. It is too easy for gas board engineers under the law to assert that the gas piping has fractured or is defective because of negligence of the local authority or some other public authority in allowing heavy traffic to pass along the roads under which the piping is sited.
§ When gas board engineers make such a report, in effect they are relieving their employers of liability under the law to pay compensation. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)
It is important not to cast aspersions on employees of nationalised industries. The hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in the Post Office. If a Post Office engineer is called upon to give an independent report, irrespective of its effect on the industry, surely the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that the engineer will make a report which is other than truthful? That being so, it is fair to draw the parallel that gas board engineers fully realise their responsibility. We should therefore pay tribute to them and not suggest that they might not report fairly or properly because of the effect that an independent report might have on the industry.
§ Mr. Golding
Certainly in this case I would not make such an aspersion. The levels of danger are different. After the Madeley gas explosion the Post Office swore that it was the gas board's responsibility and the gas board said that it was the Post Office's responsibility. However objective engineers believe themselves to be, they have institutional loyalties. As Post Office, gas board or electricity board men they tend to develop a loyalty to their organisation. However objective they think they are being, they will be less objective than an outside inquiry.
An analogy is to be found in the Bill. The Department is responsible for meter readers. If there is a dispute between a customer and the gas board, the Department is able to put in meter readers to deliver an impartial judgment. Disputes arising from death and injury are more important than disputes arising on the size of the bills. The men who are responsible for the preparation of bills 899 within the gas board are also likely to be men of honesty and integrity.
In highlighting these two cases, I realise that I may be giving the impression that there is a growing hazard from natural gas. I want to put this into perspective. The accident at Madeley occurred before conversion to natural gas. In several respects natural gas is much safer than town gas, although in one specific way, to which I will refer later, it is much more dangerous.
In support of this view let me add that in 1970 the Minister of Technology received a report on the inquiry into the safety of natural gas as a fuel from Professor Frank Morton. He had been appointed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) on 13th March because of the growing concern over the hazards of natural gas. Much of the report deals with the problems of conversion and I shall not address myself to those. The report illustrates how much safer natural gas is in the home because it is non-toxic. Deaths due to gas poisoning either accidentally or by suicide have dropped dramatically over the last few years. That is why when people speaking for the gas authority say that the number of deaths has diminished and therefore there is no problem, some of us become very concerned.
We appreciate that the total hides the true position. The report makes it clear that the high-pressure bulk transmission system for natural gas in Great Britain has been designed, constructed and laid to the most exacting standards and all possible safety precautions have been taken. It is also apparent that the governors used in the distribution system at all points at which it is necessary to control differences in pressure at various stages, including the supply of gas from street mains to consumers' premises, are of a very high standard of design and quality to provide for the adequate protection of the system against sudden pressure surges.
Professor Morton said:The surveys of consumers' appliances and installations made prior to conversion…and the subsequent replacement of many unserviceable appliances and rectification of defective conditions, should lead to substantially higher levels of safety and efficiency in the use of gas, provided that consumers 900 comply with the recommendations issued by the gas boards following these surveys.I fully accept this.
Following this report I believe that the domestic consumer need have no unnecessary fears. There is still a great deal of room for worry on the part of others. Let me give the reasons. Writing on page 10 of the report Professor Morton explains that:Fire occurs when gas escapes from its containing system, mixes with air and is ignited from some source. Explosion results when the speed of flame travelling through the gas-air mixture exceeds certain limits and particularly when the gas-air mixture is confined. The gas may escape as a result of leakages in transmissions and distribution lines, failure of joints to remain gastight, leakage through pipe walls as a result of corrosion, or from ill-fitting or mal-adjusted connections. It may also escape as a result of careless or accidental misuse of an appliance or from the failure or malfunctioning of the appliance.This Clause is concerned only with explosions following gas escapesas a result of leakages in transmission and distribution lines, because of the failure of joints to remain gas-tight, because of leakage through pipe walls, as a result of corrosion, or from ill-fitting or mal-adjusted connections.12.15 p.m.
It is not concerned with the careless or accidental misuse of an appliance or with the failure or malfunctioning of the appliance. It is from the area distribution systems that the main hazards arise. To quote Professor Morton again:Medium and low pressure feeder and street mains are occasionally of welded steel construction but are more often built up of sections of cast-iron pipe connected by socketed joints. The traditional type of joint in the older cast-iron mains, of which there are many thousands of miles throughout the country, is the open socketed type in which the sealing material is hemp yarn held in position by lead. The transition to dry, manufactured gas and natural gas has caused frequent leakages from these joints as a result of the drying out of the hemp packing.I will return to this because to a great extent it is the nub of the problem. Professor Morton said:The transition to dry, manufactured gas and natural gas has caused frequent leakages from these joints as a result of the drying out of the hemp packing.He went on to say that action has been taken andas a result the number of leakages per mile of main has dropped significantly in the last few years".901 He goes on:Leakage from the older types of gas main has been a familiar problem for many years and the gas boards are well aware of the danger from leaks and the cost to themselves of any substantial loss of gas. The use of higher pressures, drier gas and latterly natural gas in the district systems has caused the gas board to undertake intensive programmes of clamping, sealing and—where necessary—renewal.So far so good. But some of this, as I shall show later, is open to argument. Consider Professor Morton's last statement in the light of the complacency that we face from the departments in the gas authority. Professor Morton said:The total length of gas mains in the country is so vast, however (of the order of 120,000 miles of main and several millions of joints), that many years will be needed for the elemination of all risks.That is a most significant statement.
I am waiting to hear how the Government at this late date intend to deal with this statement. If many years will be needed for the elemination of all leaks, at least we have to acknowledge that leaks can destroy the lives of Post Office engineers and electricians either literally or by disfigurement or invalidity. This paragraph of the Report appears to be far too complacent. Perhaps this is because Professor Morton sought only the opinions of unions in the gas industry and not those unions whose members are especially affected by leakages, such as the electrical unions working on the distribution of electricity and the Post Office Engineering Union.
There seems to be a conflict of view about piping. I have already quoted the views of the coroner in my own constituency. I have also underlined the fact that in practice in my constituency at least—and probably it applies to the whole of the West Midlands—there is only limited visual inspection of piping before conversion. That is a statement taken under oath at an inquest and not one made by officials far removed from what happens in the field.
Following the terrible Clarkston Toll explosion, while the Paisley jury could not find fault or negligence on the part of any person or persons, it found that…the accident was caused as a result of gas escaping through a fracture in the four-inch gas main laid beneath the pavements in front of the shops in Clarkston Toll shopping centre into the unventilated void below the shopping centre, which gas subse- 902 quently became ignited and exploded, and there was no evidence laid before us from which we are able to hold it proved what the cause of the ignition was".It had been proved to the jury's satisfaction that the main fractured as a result of stress and corrosion.
Incidentally, after the verdict the chairman of the Scottish Gas Board, Mr. Ronald Parker, said:There will be—in fact it has already started—a careful review of our current practices to see what improvement can be made.We want more than improvement. We want the avoidance of all such incidents. We shall be interested to hear what has followed from that terrible gas explosion which received so much publicity.
In citing that case, I want to re-emphasise to the Minister that for some family each individual gas explosion is as important as a major disaster. We expect the Department to take them very seriously.
It has been argued by many people—and I have cited the coroner of Newcastle-under-Lyme—that trouble is caused because gas is put through at double the pressure to that for which the system was provided. Some of those to whom I have spoken are not convinced that the pressure is the cause. They remind me that it was a feature of the old town gas that, being damp, even when a pipe disintegrated the damp gas could create for itself a pathway of moulded soil from which it would not escape. Instances have been quoted to me where a pipe has virtually disappeared but where, because of the dampness of the gas that had gone through it, no leakage had occurred because it had created for itself its own pipe. As is clear from Professor Morton's Report, natural gas has not this property.
Leakages are producing alarm among some employees of other nationalised industries who are employed in underground manholes, which are confined spaces subject to explosion. They are especially threatened by the defect revealed in the Morton Report concerning joints. Affecting Post Office engineers probably more than others, there is also the growing practice of the gas authority of testing for gas by sealing off Post Office ducts rather than using steel probes. Thus not only are members of the general public faced with hazards for 903 which there is no compensation; employees of other nationalised industries also face the problem. I shall refer shortly to the risk which exists in connection with telephone kiosks used by the general public, since they also are subject to this hazard.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)
Does not my hon. Friend agree that in any circumstances where there is a duct coming into a piece of apparatus from the soil there is always a very great risk?
§ Mr. Golding
Of course there is a risk, and I am trying to outline it. I notice that from time to time the Minister does not look quite as serious about this matter as he should. I emphasise that what we are discussing is not only the destruction of property; it is the destruction of the lives of ordinary people. I need only show hon. Members the face of a man burned in a gas explosion which is portrayed in the Post Office booklet on gas precautions to demonstrate the reality of what we are discussing. It is a very serious problem about which all should be concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) is better able than I am to speak for employees in the electricity industry. I know that he has questioned Ministers diligently on this subject. If he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have no doubt that he will speak with great experience of the electricity industry.
I intend to confine my present remarks to the representations made to me by the Post Office Engineering Union. One of its Assistant Secretaries, Mr. Brind, has the terrible responsibility of having to process the claims of Post Office engineers and their families after gas explosions have damaged their lives. Perhaps at this point I ought to declare my own interest, since it will be known that I am an officer of that union.
Despite the impression give by the gas authority, since the advent of natural gas, the number of gas accidents involving those who work down manholes has increased alarmingly. I quote from the Post Office magazine Engineering Safety of July, 1971. On the front page of that edition Alistair Campbell reports:Gas accidents in the Post Office have multiplied more than five times over the past seven 904 years. In the two years since Engineering Safety last put the spotlight on gas hazards, the accident figures have almost doubled. Where men are involved in such accidents the consequences are almost always serious for eight out of every ten cases are explosions. Faces and hands almost always get badly burned—one of the most miserable and painful forms of injury. Suffering can be long—and absences from work from two to five months are extremely common. The accident figures are even more worrying when looked at against the huge effort being put into precautionary measures.The point the article does not make is that it is not only faces and hands that are normally damaged when a gas explosion takes place. Usually the men are in a crouching position, so they receive the blast not only in the face and hands, but in the groin. Impotence can therefore be one of the consequences of a gas explosion when working in a confined manhole.
In 1963 there were 12 gas accidents. By 1970 the number had risen to 68. The evidence is that they are increasing in the short run. What are the reasons for this? They are those I have indicated which were either treated scantily or ignored by the Morton Committee Report.
Of the various cases in which explosions have taken place down manholes, I will refer to an instance when an explosion took place before tests for gas could even be made. Such an accident occurred in the London area in April, 1970. A member engaged on a cable recovery operation was removing a manhole cover while another member went to the gas vehicle to obtain a gas detector. The manhole cover lid had been removed for only some seconds when the explosion occurred. There were successive explosions along the road with manhole covers being blow from their positions. Counsel said that there was no evidence to show that the gas board knew of any leakage or could reasonably have suspected any such leakage before the explosion occurred. A consultant engineer said that it was difficult to ascertain the cause of the explosion. He said:From the information to hand, there were no naked lights in the vicinity and the possibility is that a steel tip on one of the men's boots may have made a spark by striking the manhole surround, which brought about ignition of the gas.905 The young man concerned suffered burns to his face and hands. He will get no compensation from the gas board. I have outlined that case because it illustrates the total injustice of the situation.
The more normal case is where a test for gas has been made by engineers, no positive result is obtained of the presence of gas, work commences, and then an explosion occurs. That situation has become much more common with natural gas. The reason, which I have outlined, is that revealed in the Morton Committee Report when dealing with defective joints. The old town gas was a wet gas, and it helped to keep the hemp seals effective by keeping them damp. If the gas leaked it made the earth around the pipe damp and that retained the gas.
Natural gas is a different animal; it has different properties and opposite tendencies. It dries out the seals and makes it possible for gas to leak from the pipe. Having leaked, it passes easily through the earth—it does not dampen it—to some natural cavity. Pressure builds up and, when it passes a certain point, the gas passes quickly down the path of least resistance at speed.
That path can well be a Post Office duct leading into a manhole in which men are working. That gas can be ignited by just the movement of a cable or even, as I have illustrated, by a spark from a boot during normal operations. Such an explosion can lead to terrible consequences; but, because the gas board is not absolutely liable at common law, no compensation would be payable. As I have already explained, natural gas also escapes more easily through corroded or fractured piping.
It could be said in answer that if there were audio detectors down the manholes some accidents could be avoided. Unfortunately, such is the way in which we treat safety that the Post Office, which can contemplate spending £200 million to £400 million on new types of equipment, will argue that the provision of audio detectors is too expensive. Basically I agree that rather than have improved methods of detection, it would be far better to prevent the leakages.
In addition to danger from leaks from hemp seals, men who work down Post Office manholes now face an additional 906 hazard—the change in the method of de-detecting leaks. The old method was for the gas authority to drive a steel spike into the ground at various points within the reported area. A probe was then inserted and coupled to a meter which indicated the gas content until it could be determined where the heaviest concentration existed. That gave the gas authority an indication of the source of the leak.
With the development of polythene cables and plastic water pipes, the gas board decided that this method was too expensive because it had to carry an insurance premium to cover the damage to polythene cables and plastic water pipes. Instead, the gas board has decided to use a method of detecting through Post Office ducts. The board persuades the Post Office to lift the covers off any manholes in an area and then to seal the duct entrances. After that the area is vacated for a period. A probe is then inserted via the duct seal to ascertain which length of duct has the highest concentration of gas, thus giving the board a lead as to the source of the gas leak.
That method can and does lead to accidents. Early in 1970 an accident occurred in the Greater London area from this cause. Two days before this incident, the gas board was involved with a leak which affected the cable ducts and manholes. To trace it, the ducts were sealed off. Two Post Office men, not having been told of this and having taken a gas test using a standard indicator, entered the manhole. While they were removing the faulty cable, probably because of the movement of the cable, an explosion occurred.
Although they are injured, those men are unlikely to receive compensation. They have suffered terrible injury through no fault of their own but because of a defective system operated by the gas board. What is most terrible to contemplate is that the gas board is prepared to use a method of gas detection to avoid damage to a polythene cable and water pipes because it will have to pay an insurance to cover that damage, yet it is prepared to use a method of gas detection which it knows can cause loss of life or serious injury to Post Office engineers, because it will not have to pay for that loss of life or injury.
907 That is the present state of the law, and it is a damnable situation. It would be an intolerable attitude for any private industry to take, but for a nationalised industry, backed by a Department of State, it is even worse.
I have talked about the threat to Post Office engineers, as I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central will be able to talk about the hazards to electricians. Perhaps the Department will take more notice about dangers to the public. I have said that the dangers in the home have reduced, but there is one situation in which danger to the public has increased as a result of conversion to natural gas.
I take it as a sick joke when I see that the Gas Council, preparing for the new powers of the British Gas Corporation, has published a booklet entitled "Natural Gas on Target". The target could well be the public in telephone kiosks.
I have just received a letter dated 20th June, 1972, from a branch secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union in East London. He writes:Dear John,Reports of North Sea Gas in East AreaI have many more cases throughout the area, but here are a few from one notice-board at a T.S.C. Date 188.8.131.52 reports of gas of 100 per cent. on Detector No. 5 from 2nd June 1972 to 13th June 1972.He says that four were in cabinets and 20 in manholes and footway boxes, but perhaps the Department will not concern itself over-much about this. Perhaps it can shrug that off as someone else's responsibility. Cabinets mainly concern the lives and limbs of Post Office engineers.
But the remaining case was a public kiosk at the corner of Belgrave Road and Northbrook Road in Ilford. It was reported on 31st May and cleared on 7th June, 1972—a week in which a hazard existed for the people of Ilford. Mr. Lay says that, although this was cleared in a week, no doubt because it was a public kiosk, he is used to gas leaks taking much longer to clear. He says that the other 24 cases took much longer.
908 He says that the danger here…is that we the Engineers, by virtue of our type of work, i.e. manholes and footway boxes…would take tests. Call boxes, maintenance—a subs, apparatus man would go to clear fault and would not take gas test…Indeed, he does not carry detection equipment in his kit.
This is a sentence which the Minister should note and on which he should have discussions with the Post Office as well as the Gas Board:There could be lots of kiosks that are potential bombs and no-one will ever know, because they are not in the usual line of testing.On both sides of the House, at Question time, I have heard both the Postmaster-General and the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications answering hon. Members on both sides who deprecate vandalism in public call boxes. But vandalism is nothing compared with the irresponsibility of allowing call boxes to go unexamined when the escape of gas through ducts could turn them, as Mr. Lay says, into potential bombs.
Against the background that I have outlined, there should be no doubt on the part of the Government that they should place upon the new Gas Council an absolute liability for damage. The present Chief Secretary said during the debates on the 1965 Gas Act:…'Absolutely liable' means that it shall be unconditionally liable—that the plaintiff in any case does not need to prove negligence or breach of any other of the rules of law, statutory or common law, which would give rise to a liability."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April, 1965: Standing Committee B, c. 341.]How useful would it be to escape from argument about the common law and what an advantage to the individual citizen in circumstances like this to be able to escape from the common lawyers.
We know that onus of proof can be difficult for the ordinary individual to prove. One of my hon. and learned Friends has advised me that a Court of Appeal decision recently may have gone some way towards placing the onus of proof on the gas authority. At present, if one has to prove liability, one has to enter a lottery.
I quote from a learned work, "Damages for Personal Injuries and Death", by J. Munkman, LL.B.:If we are to talk about real law reform, then I agree negligence is unsatisfactory, and 909 the remedy for this is to recognise that (with some exceptions for 'give-and-take' situations) it is a tort (i.e., a duty imposed by law), for which compensation is payable if bodily injury is caused to the plaintiff (whether negligently or not), by the defendant, or by servants, agents, animals or property under his control.I was very interested to read a recent article in the Listener, by Sir Leslie Scarman, Chairman of the English Law Commission, who wrote:During the last hundred years our law has evolved the doctrine of negligence, the principle that compensation for accidental personal injury depends upon proof of fault. What this principle means in practice is that, if you are injured in an accident, you have to prove someone is to blame, if you are to get any compensation—other, of course, than your National Insurance and supplementary benefits. This was all very well when society was much less at the mercy of machines.I might say in parenthesis that this was all very well before the advent of natural gas. He continued:Indeed, there is justice in the view that a man must be proved to have done wrong before he can be compelled to pay damages. But does it make sense today? If you are knocked down in the street, why should your compensation depend on whether you are lucky enough to be able to prove by evidence that the motorist was at fault? Suppose you were rendered unconscious and nobody else was there to see what happened. Law under which one man, because he has evidence, may recover damages measured in thousands of pounds, while another, because he has no evidence, can get nothing, is clearly suspect. One could go on accumulating instances, but the problem of compensation for accidental injury is enough to reveal the need for apparatus to ensure that problems of law reform are tackled before they become a social scandal.The law relating to damage caused by gas explosions is already a social scandal. I have read with interest the debates on the introduction by the 1965 Act of the doctrine of absolute liability on the part of the gas authority for damage caused by leaks from underground storage. In the debate in the other place Lord Champion said:It is exceptional to impose absolute liability",but he emphasised that it was because underground storage was absolutely new in this country, andfor that reason people may be uncertain and apprehensive about the possibility that some accident may injure people or damage their property.In support of his argument he said that absolute liability was placed on nuclear 910 reactors by the Nuclear Installations Act, 1959, adding:underground storage has already been widely practised abroad and its safety and practicability are well established. Nevertheless, the Government considered that the imposition of absolute liability to the extent provided for in Clause 14 of this Bill was justified because of the novelty of this development in this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 17th June, 1965; Vol. 267, c. 213.]Since 1965 there has been the development of another novelty which would justify the extension of absolute liability from underground gas storage to underground gas pipes. I repeat that the new Clause does not cover domestic apparatus. The novelty to which I refer is natural gas. In the Second Reading debate on the 1965 Measure my right hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Frederick Lee), then Minister of Power, was able to say of natural gas:there is the possibility of natural gas being found under the North Sea. It cannot, of course, be assumed that any gas will be found there or that, if it were, the amount would be significant in relation to our fuel supplies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1965; Vol. 706, c. 580.]That illustrates the novelty. In the last debate on legal liability, natural gas was being talked about only as a possibility.
If people wanted assurance against underground gas storage, which the Government knew to be safe, how much more do they want assurance against the consequences of gas leaks, which an inquiry has declared for the time being to be inevitable! I repeat that Professor Morton has said that the gas leaks will continue. Is it because there is danger that the State is refusing to accept liability? Will it accept absolute liability only when, as in 1965, it knows itself to be safe, when it knows that it will never have to pay compensation? If so, that is disgraceful.
People want not only assurance but rather more compensation. The common law is expensive. All complex legal argument is expensive, and it would be better to simplify the procedures so that cash can end up in the pockets of those who have suffered from a gas explosion rather than in the bank balances of the lawyers.
The imposition of absolute liability on the Gas Council could well lead to higher standards of gas safety in the areas which I have discussed. I have described how being subject to liability if it damages 911 polythene or plastic, it adopts detection measures which put the lives and limbs of electricians and Post Office engineers at risk. If the pounds and pence of those lives and limbs were assessed against the pounds and pence of polythene and plastic, we might find the Gas Council becoming more safety-conscious.
If the property in my constituency to which I have referred had been damaged by subsidence resulting from coal-mining, the National Coal Board would have accepted full liability. It would have taken me one leter to obtain satisfaction for my constituents. My constituent whose garage was damaged would not have been treated so badly. If the members of the Post Office Engineering Union who were hurt had suffered as a result of sewer seepage, they would have been compensated by the sewerage authority. An absolute liability is placed on nuclear energy installations. That is reasonable. It is right that the price of coal should reflect the damage caused by its extraction and that those who benefit from the production of nuclear energy should be prepared to insure those who might be at risk. On the same argument, the price of gas should also include an element to cover compensation for those damaged by its distribution.
I should not need to emphasise that individuals are far less able to carry the burden, and neither the Government, the Gas Council nor the gas consumer has a right to expect those individuals whose property has been damaged or—more important—those whose lives have been destroyed, alone to pay the price for the lack of total gas safety.
§ Mr. Palmer
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), with customary modesty, explained that he was making an outline case. I think he did himself injustice because the House should be grateful to him for the careful and painstaking way in which he introduced new Clause 1. We on this side of the House—and I in particular, perhaps, because of my close connection with the electricity supply industry—feel that the new Clause is necessary to put right a serious situation, in which there is a continuing danger of 912 injustice to employees in the public services and to the public itself because great risks are being incurred with no proper system of compensation.
It is a situation likely to get worse, as my hon. Friend said. It is not only he who has raised the issue. I have raised it from time to time; my hon. Friend the Member for Wands worth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox), with his practical experience, has also raised it. I believe that hon. Members opposite have done so as well. It is an extremely serious matter and we hope that the Undersecretary of State will not only take the argument seriously but will accept the Clause.
First, I turn to what the lawyers know as the generality of the case. Those who served on the Standing Committee will know what I am referring to. Clause 2 lays certain duties on the new Corporation:It shall be the duty of the Corporation to develop and maintain an efficient, co-ordinated and economical system of gas supply for Great Britain…Those words are all right as far as they go, but nothing is included to place any duty on the Corporation to maintain a safe system of supply. The question of safety is covered, in so far as it is covered, by Clause 31, but the way in which it does it is remarkable.
Clause 31 places the responsibility for safety regulations on the Minister. I only wish from time to time that Ministers would accept their responsibilities in certain matters instead of passing responsibility back to the industry itself. But the responsibility under the Bill and under existing legislation for ensuring safety is with the Minister, who must make safety regulations. What is remarkable about Clause 31 is that it entirely dodges the responsibility of the Corporation itself for ensuring safety and being liable for the consequences of neglect. Under Clause 31, the Minister is to make regulations, but afterwards it seems to be assumed that it is a matter really of protecting the gas undertaking against innumerable individuals who are credited with a sort of mischievous desire to do all kinds of things which would be to the detriment of the gas undertaking, to its pipes, its apparatus and its installations.
I could quote, although I will not do so, from numerous subsections which 913 have been put into the Bill to protect the Corporation rather than its employees and the public. I suspect that much of this wording goes back a long way to the early Victorian days—wording which has been taken over in a succession of Gas Acts since then. Gas was one of the earliest of our public services and indeed recalls "Fanny by Gaslight" and the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, who went onto the streets of London and committed his crimes with old-fashioned gas lamps in the background.
I believe that our first gas legislation was the Gas Works Clauses Act, 1846. I suspect that in that Act one will find early traces of the attitudes to be found in this Bill, in which it is more or less taken as a privilege granted to the public that they should be able to obtain a supply of gas. A similar attitude pervades the railway. If one reads the regulations on a railway station one learns how lucky one is to be able to travel on the railway at all. I suspect that some of that attitude remains in the wording of Clause 31.
In the interests of public safety this attitude should be superseded by a more up-to-date outlook. The need for a change is very much greater today because of the adoption as the new commodity for giving heat through the gas industry of natural gas in place of the old town gas. My hon. Friend has saved me the trouble of quoting from Professir Morton's Report of which I have a copy. Since my hon. Friend has quoted that document I will not do so, but I would emphasise what my hon. Friend has had to say. We made this point when we discussed this matter in a rather different way in Committee.
Natural gas has put enormous strain on some of the old local gas networks which, as I say, go back to the very early days of the gas industry. Probably, in some places, there is no record of where the pipes are. They are old gas pipes and old gas networks. They stood up reasonably well when town gas was inside them. They leak very badly when natural gas is flowing through them, not simply because of the possibly greater pressure but because of the nature of the gas.
Instead of having a damping effect, which tends to moisten the seals in the ground around, it has in fact a drying 914 effect, as my hon. Friend pointed out. This means that throughout the country we now have this very great hazard from these old gas networks, which really should not be used at all in these circumstances; they are leaking, and leaking to an increasing extent. My hon. Friend has emphasised the great risks and hazards in which Post Office engineers are placed because they have to go into their underground chambers for the connection of their cables. In many ways there are similar risks faced in the electricity supply industry.
Here I declare my interest, if I have to. I have received from an official of my union, the Electrical Power Engineers Association, a letter written of behalf not just of one union but of the electricity supply industry. It came from Mr. Tom Allock, secretary to the Employers' National Committee of the electrical supply industry. He was writing on behalf of the safety, health and welfare committee of the National Joint Advisory Council for electricity supply, and that includes management representatives of the electricity boards as well. I quote his words:The Safety Health and Welfare Committee of the National Joint Advisory Council are concerned at the growing number of explosions caused by natural gas leaking in substations and other supply industry premises and even into all-electric houses. Supply industry staff have been killed and injured, as have members of the general public.I raised this—my hon. Friend was good enough to refer to the fact—in the House recently. In short, I asked the Minister, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Board-man) who is, I think, the Minister for Industry, who appeared for a fleeting moment—I thought I saw him just now—but who went out again, what he was doing about this, particularly from the point of view of the electricity supply industry, that being the industry with which I am greatly concerned.
In reply he said—and I thought that it was, in many senses, a scandalous reply, and said so at the time—that this was a matter primarily for the gas industry and he would get the Chairman of the present Gas Council to write to me. As I explained to the House, I can always carry on correspondence with chairmen of the gas boards or the Chairman of the Gas Council, if I want to, 915 at any time, and since the Minister, under existing legislation, is primarily responsible it is little short of scandalous that he should tell us, when we put down Questions, that we can correspond with the Chairman of the Gas Council. Having, of course, nothing against the Chairman of the Gas Council I corresponded with him—or, rather, he corresponded with me; and I have a letter which he wrote and I will quote it to the House. It gives some interesting figures. He says:The difference between total gas available and gas sold and used"—which is known to the gas industry as gross unaccounted for gas—was 7.8 per cent, of gas available in 1960–61 and 8.5 per cent. of gas available in 1970–71.It will be noted that that figure, which I think is very considerable in itself, means a loss of some 2 per cent. It in increasing, and that is not denied. I think the reason why this loss is increasing is the loss of gas from the old networks because of the increasing spread of the new natural gas supply which, as has already been explained to the House, is putting an increasing strain on those old networks. In fact, the Chairman of the Gas Council, Mr. Hetherington, in the last paragraph of his letter of 24th April says:The figures arise mainly from the distribution of gas to consumers through low pressure systems".That is the point—the old, ancient gas networks. He says:The loss of gas in high pressure systems where it would be readily detected is negligible. Such systems are inspected at regular intervals.1.15 p.m.
There was no need for him to say that, really, because it is common ground to all those who have studied the subject, including Professor Morton. The higher pressure system, the basic transmission system for natural gas from its entry into the country at the sea coast, is, in the main, a modern installation, and one would expect that the joints would be made in such a way that they would stand up to the more onerous conditions imposed by natural gas.
Therefore, the case made by my hon. Friend seems to me 100 per cent. sound. 916 It does not leak in any way, which is more than can be said of the old networks of the gas industry. It is an extremely sound case, and it seems to be one accepted by the gas industry itself.
In talking on this subject in a rather different context in Standing Committee I made a point which I made earlier here in an intervention in my hon. Friend's speech, and which is bound to arise in any circumstances where there is apparatus which is connected to the soil through ducts. Natural gas, when it gets away from the pipes to which it should be confined, lurks about under ground, and it may store in the crevices and cracks below, and eventually pressure moves it upwards. If it finds a convenient duct which leads into a telephone kiosk or into a Post Office underground chamber or box or into an electricity supply station—well, in it goes. One particularity about natural gas is that it does not smell in the familiar way of old-fashioned town gas, with which most of us, I suppose, at some time or another in our lives, were very familiar indeed. Therefore, it is given by the clever gas chemists a smell of its own, an artificial smell, which is put in to help detection.
Therefore, it may be said that, surely, when there is natural gas about in an electricity substation one has a detector or one's nose and one knows that it is there. Unfortunately, with certain soils—I am not expert on this, but I am told by those who are experts—if gas is long enough underground the smell is taken out of it so that it cannot be detected. I have worked at various times in the past in electricity substations and I am familiar with them. They contain high voltage apparatus which is usually totally enclosed, particularly if it is a highly loaded substation in an urban area. A low supply network with maximum pressure of about 400 volts is open and in the air; it is a normal routine operation to operate a switch in the air, or to operate an isolator, and a spark is thrown into the atmosphere, and normally it will be immediately extinguished by the air itself. Of course, if natural gas is present, there will be an explosion. This is the situation explained by the official of my union who wrote to me, and electricity supply staff have been killed as a result.
917 The new Clause would impose an absolute liability on the new Gas Corporation to pay the necessary compensation. In itself, that would not bring back to life those who were killed in these circumstances. None of us wishes to be vindictive towards the gas industry in this matter and we appreciate its difficulties. In the ordinary way, those engaged in that industry are responsible people. However, a Clause of this kind would put the Corporation and the district representatives into the position that unless they took every precaution to avoid leakages, even to the extent of replacing some of the old networks as quickly as possible, they would be very much at a financial loss. This kind of Clause, putting an absolute financial responsibility on the Corporation, would have the useful secondary effect of making it bring up to date the old gas networks and putting the risk beyond reach.
I was somewhat startled to find when looking through the last annual report of the Gas Council, for 1970–71, that there was no reference to the safety of natural gas. It is true that on page 6 it said:In the course of his conclusions, Professor Morton stated that natural gas can be stored, distributed and used with safety in correctly designed and properly maintained equipment.That is true, but nothing is said of the existing gas networks. It went on:He emphasised the non-toxic nature of natural gas, and added that its use does not increase the risks of fire and explosion.The Gas Council is picking from the Morton Report everything favourable to it and saying nothing of Professor Morton's damaging conclusions about the state of the networks. It went on:In view of Prof Morton's conclusions and recommendations, studies of problems associated with the installation and maintenance of adequate ventilation were intensified.That refers to apparatus installed in consumers' premises and there is no reference to improving the networks. It went on:Codes of Practice and appliance design were reviewed and assistance given in the drafting of new building regulations.It would be very much to the credit of the Gas Council if it would tell the public, the Minister and the House in its annual report what it is doing in practice to reduce the hazard.
918 We argue that the only way in which to bring the gas industry to a proper sense of responsibility in the matter is to put a new financial responsibility on it. The fact of being in a rather special position as against most people in the matter of negligence goes back to the early history of the industry, but this state of affairs cannot be tolerated indefinitely.
As the law places an absolute liability on the industry in the storage of gas, it seems hard to explain why the industry should not have an equal absolute responsibility in the matter of the gas pipes used in the networks. The majority of hon. Members have a respect for the industry as one of the most successful of the nationalised industries, but it is running away from what should be its proper public attitude in this respect and it is tending to shield behind an out-of-date legal situation.
The way in which to remind this industry of its responsibilities and to impose upon it the duty of improving the networks is to put on it an increased financial risk, and that is the purpose of the Clause. I hope that the Minister will not only say that he fully accepts the strength of the arguments deployed this morning, but that he will take the matter much further and will accept the Clause without quibble.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Emery
We have had two speeches of some importance on the new Clause. I say immediately that the Government, the Gas Council and the gas boards do not treat at all lightly, or with anything but immense seriousness, safety factors within the gas industry. It would be wrong for the debate to give the impression that there was increased danger, or that the country's gas system did not meet the most rigorous standards of safety which have been built up over many years.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) reflected on the merits of nationalisation and private enterprise. It is my right hon. Friend's responsibility and mine to ensure that the gas industry, as is the case with all the nationalised industries, which are major assets of the country, is able to function fully and properly as an efficient organisation. That is why the Bill is introducing a reorganisation of the industry.
919 I should like to reply to some of the specific queries of hon. Members. For example, the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) said there was no duty in the Bill to maintain a safe gas industry. That is not correct. It is not stated in Clause 2, but there are other references to safety in the industry; and there are, of course, aspects of the law of the land which go further than the Bill in placing a massive responsibility on the Gas Council.
§ Mr. Emery
May I finish this point? The hon. Gentleman went on to say that there needed to be a more up-to-date attitude on gas safety. These arguments are being put forward on the grounds that an alteration will be needed in the law of liability. I would emphasise that there are in the industry some of the most up-to-date and advanced methods to ensure safety. In the same way I believe that responsibilities placed upon Ministers in this respect are properly acted upon.
I would certainly reinforce that statement from my own personal, although short, experience in this office. The codes of practice laid down in the Bill and prepared by my Department have resulted from consultation with outside bodies. Hon. Members will appreciate that on certain matters I have been willing to go further than any other Minister has ever done in seeing that the House has knowledge of these matters and in seeing that relevant papers are placed in the library. Therefore, I would not accept any comment that there is other than the most up-to-date approach both by the Council and by the industry to questions of gas safety.
§ Mr. Palmer
I referred specifically to Clause 2, which is the key Clause laying down responsibilities of the new Gas Corporation. It does not mention safety and I feel that it should do so. I also referred to defects in Clause 31 which we strongly criticised in Committee.
§ Mr. Emery
I do not think that counters my argument that the whole approach of the industry is based on the feeling that it wants to ensure the highest degree of safety possible. I will explain the legal aspects in relation to the working of these provisions a little later.
920 The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme suggested that natural gas is a novelty. That is not true in the sense in which he was discussing the danger factor. He mentioned the drying out of joints, and I would stress that this danger arose with other types of gas which come from oil products, such as the naphtha process. Town gas manufactured from oil-based materials sometimes had injected into it a certain degree of precipitate to ensure that the sort of problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman would not occur.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of injury, and I am the first to wish to ensure that there is a full understanding of the necessity to protect all people working with gas apparatus and other types of equipment, be they electrical or Post Office, into which gas may seep. But I also believe that responsibilities lie with other industries when men are working in surroundings where gas may be used. The example of the Post Office man who was injured through not having been warned that the Post Office ducts had been sealed off to detect leaks must be a responsibility not of the Gas Corporation but of the Post Office, which is responsible for controlling its own workers. The concept that such a liability would lie with the Gas Corporation in the case of error seems to me to be asking for a major alteration in the law which would not be acceptable
An example was given involving a gas leak in a Post Office kiosk, and the question of notification was raised whether that box was closed to the public. These things must be the responsibility of the management of the industry concerned. In terms of the legal responsibilities that are sought to be laid down by this new Clause, it would be wrong to suggest that the responsibility to which I have been referring should be taken away from the industry in question and the legal obligation placed on the Gas Council.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was only when somebody was killed that a thorough investigation took place. I must nail that statement, since it is not correct. All explosions are investigated and any serious explosion is investigated very thoroughly, and in such instances reports are made available to my Department. From time to time all mains are monitored by sensitive mobile detectors for 921 breakage and the frequency of investigation depends on the age of the mains and any deterioration which may be known about them.
On the point made by the hon. Gentleman that a visual inspection is of major importance, I suggest that in many instances, particularly in respect of conversion, visual inspection would mean the digging up of ground around joints. This is unnecessary with the use of other much more modern methods, which are more efficient than visual inspection and can be applied to deal with a specific problem.
§ Mr. Golding
In the case of the explosion which occurred in my constituency, I was informed that notification to the Department takes place only when death occurs or there is damage to property amounting to over £100. The Minister should not imply that he is notified when there has been severe burning or mutilation.
§ Mr. Emery
I do not withdraw anything I have said in regard to testing and the responsibilities of the Gas Council and the way in which it carries them out.
The new Clause places absolute liability on the Corporation for the consequences of an escape of gas from any of its mains or pipes at least up to the consumer's side of the meter. Liability may extend further since it is possible—and I say no more than that because we do not know how the courts may interpret it—that the courts will interpret the expressionpipe used for the supply of gas to customersin the new Clause to include the pipes between the meter and the consumer's appliance, even though such pipes would not normally be the property of the Corporation and might have been installed without the knowledge, or indeed the inspection, of the Corporation. Absolute liability means that the Corporation would have to pay full compensation in all cases except to the extent that it was proved that the escape was due to the plaintiff's negligence.
Obviously one sympathsises in the case of accidents to human beings. The question of compensation for damage to property is important, and I accept it. But the new Clause would impose very onerous liability on the Corporation. It 922 would be held liable for all damage caused by an escape of gas save only when the plaintiff suffered as a result of his own fault. The industry therefore would be liable even when the intervention of a third party caused the leak. It is not clear whether the Clause is restricted only to the mains in the streets or whether it extends also to leaks from pipes on the consumer's side of the meter.
The Clause has been, so to speak, a coat hanger for a wide debate and, therefore, in urging the House to reject it, I must deal fully with the legal aspect. Two kinds of special legal liability are relevant. One, known as strict liability, arises under common law when a person has custody of a dangerous thing and it escapes and causes damage. A series of cases have established that the gas industry is not subject to strict liability in this sense. The other special kind is known as absolute liability, which is the kind of liability the Opposition are trying to introduce by the Clause. This has been applied by Parliament under the Gas Act, 1965, in very few cases indeed. Those which are uppermost in the minds of hon. Members concerned with energy matters relate to nuclear installations and underground gas storage. In each of these cases the person responsible for the installation is absolutely liable.
These varieties of special liability lead away from the principle normally referred to, which the Scots summarise as "no reparation without culpa"—which is, no damages without negligence—but the essential point is the degree of control which can be exercised over the installations.
In the cases of absolute liability which I have mentioned, the operator has either complete or never less than substantial control over the particular operation. Thus, nuclear installations comprise isolated sites, fenced off and with no unauthorised access. With common law strict liability, there is an implicit assumption that the keeper of dangerous substances ought to take special care to keep control and to stop them from escaping. This is done specifically with the underground storage to which I referred.
However, in the overall gas industry throughout the country the pipes run under streets, and the streets are pounded 923 by heavy traffic. It must have fittings which run underground and in places where there may be excavation with which the Gas Council has nothing to do. Under the new Clause, the Gas Corporation would be held liable for any damage resulting from that situation. Surely that could not be right in law.
The gas industry follows the highest standards in determining the kinds of pipe it uses for particular purposes and in its practices in laying mains and minor delivery pipe work. To introduce absolute liability under the new Clause would in no way lead to greater safety in the supply of gas. If I could be convinced that the Clause would do anything to save one person's life or to prevent damage to any house or home, I would find it much more acceptable.
§ Mr. Palmer
The hon. Gentleman seems to be very carefully skirting the great risk, and that is the possibility of leakage in the old networks due to the introduction of natural gas. Does the gas industry take responsibility for the condition of those networks?
§ Mr. Emery
I said in Committee—and I thought that I said it today, but I am willing to repeat it—that the Gas Council and the gas boards do everything possible to ensure, not merely once-and-for-all inspection, but constant inspection of the type of joint problem which we have debated. It is my experience that if there is any doubt in the mind of the Gas Council it will come down on the side of replacement or reinsulation to ensure safety. That is the sort of assurance which the Opposition have the right to demand and which it is my responsibility as Minister to give, and I give it readily because I know that the management of the Gas Council and the gas boards is as concerned as any of us to ensure that the type of incidents which have happened are cut to the minimum.
But it would be absurd to say that there could never be an accident in an industry as large as the gas industry. We want to ensure that accidents are kept to the absolute minimum and that safety measures exist which can be used in cooperation with other people who have to work in areas where gas pipes are laid.
924 I should like to deal with some of the trade union points which have been raised. I recognise the connection of the, hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme with the union of which he is a member. There is long-standing co-operation between the Post Office and the gas industry at local level going back to before the war.
Consultation with the Institute of Gas Engineers has led to the adoption of safe practices for Post Office personnel which the Post Office must make effective. The gas industry also has its codes of practice designed to ensure that mains are laid safely and do not fracture and to lay down standards of gas piping—which the British Steel Corporation at times says is too high. We have not always been able to meet from our own production the degree of safety required by the Gas Council for pipes. This shows the extent to which the Gas Council goes in trying to meet criticism.
§ Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)
A lot of high-faluting technical information is going backwards and forwards about the safety of gas installations. Although I was not a member of the Committee which considered the Bill, I am connected with the gas industry. A point which affects hundreds of gas-consuming households is the incidence of theft from gas meters. It is the tenants responsibility to reimburse the gas board. In my constituency there are bogus gas collectors who open the meter with a key and pay the tenant a rebate out of the money they have purloined. There is nothing in the Bill which deals with that. The public want to know who will take the liability away from the tenant for the money which is in the meter.
§ Mr. Emery
The hon. Member for Hammersmith North (Mr. Tomney) has been in the House long enough to know that that is a good googly on this new Clause. He and I know only too well who has specific legal responsibility for money deposited in meters. I should be delighted to have more words with the hon. Gentleman about how we might overcome this problem because I know that theft occurs in London flats and also in other conurbations.
There is a later Amendment—I do not know whether it has been selected—which provides that more prepayment 925 meters should be available at the demand of the tenant. Gas boards have been moving away from this type of meter for the reason given by the hon. Gentleman. I congratulate him on getting his constituency interest injected into the debate.
To sum up: I understand the safety problems, and it is realistic that we should consider them. If I believed that the new Clause did anything to make the regulations more effective and more binding or did anything to save even one life, I should take a different attitude, but I do not believe that we can change the whole structure of liability under the law by a new Clause in the Gas Bill. I urge the House to reject the new Clause.
§ Mr. Golding
The Minister said that everyone wants to take advantage of gas. If that were so, one part of my argument would disappear. The truth is that not everyone wants to take advantage of gas. Hon. Members who represent coal mining constituencies are conscious of the need to support coal and prefer to use electricity which is produced from coal.
The Minister has not met my point that, had the houses in Madeley which were blown up by gas been destroyed by mining subsidence, there would have been a liability on a nationalised concern, the National Coal Board.
§ Mr. Emery
I thought I had made quite clear that mining subsidence is caused by extraction underground which is entirely within the control of the National Coal Board. Under the law the National Coal Board is responsible. The gas boards are unable to have complete control of their own installations under the streets and into peoples homes.
§ Mr. Golding
Had the Minister met my argument about sewage seepage I should have taken that point more seriously. If people's health is adversely affected by sewage seepage there is an absolute liability on the sewerage authorities. In no sense can it be said that the sewerage authorities have absolute control. They are in the same position as the gas boards.
It may be that the gas boards could exercise greater control over distribution by laying pipes deeper in the ground and taking greater precautions, but it is not reasonable to say that we should not alter the law of liability. A different 926 technology has been introduced in the gas industry, the novelty of which makes it perfectly reasonable to ask that the gas board should accept responsibility.
I am disturbed at the Minister saying that a leakage of gas into a telephone kiosk or a manhole is the responsibility of the Post Office. The Madeley case is a classic case in which two nationalised industries hid behind the law of liability. Each one denied its responsibility, each one said. "Go and sue the other."
When poor, humble people who have suffered damage consulted Stephen Swingler and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and later myself, we had to say, "The law is such that you are unlikely to succeed against either nationalised industry". It is disgraceful that nationalised industries should hide behind one another. They are really only Departments of State. If either one is responsible then someone should pay compensation, and it is not reasonable for a Minister to be defending his particular little patch saying, "Let us pass the responsibility over to someone else."
§ Mr. Emery
There are bound to be cases of doubt in law, and where three parties are concerned in any legal action for negligence of damages it is not an unusual legal position for either of those who may be responsible to make it clear that they do not consider themselves to be responsible and then the third party has to sue one or the other and the court adjudicates. I do not believe it is a possibility in law to make this type of case absolutely clear. It would be quite wrong, where there could be shown to be some responsibility belonging to an authority other than the Gas Corporation, to make the Gas Corporation pick up the Bill which is what the Clause would do. On the specific point I do not believe that this sort of incident can be used as an argument for an alteration of the whole of the law.
§ Mr. Golding
I should have thought it better in such circumstances, if the gas board is arguing whether it is the responsibility of the local authority because it has not maintained the roads correctly or the responsibility of the Post Office because it has not inspected the telephone kiosks hourly to see whether there is gas in them, that the gas board should pick 927 up the bill rather than have the poor citizen bear the full financial responsibility as a result of the deficiencies of the authorities.
The Minister's reply has been disappointing. I have given the figures of the increasing number of accidents occurring as a result of leakage. After having heard those and the figures presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer), I cannot understand how the Minister can read from his brief, talking about the absolute, vigorous standards of safety on the part of the gas authorities.
We appreciate that the drafting of the Clause is not as precise as it might be. We recognise it might have limitations but
§ Question accordingly negatived.