HC Deb 25 October 1972 vol 843 cc1187-91
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the construction accident that happened yesterday afternoon at Woodley, Berkshire, where the new road linking East Reading with the M4 motorway crosses a river. Three men were killed and ten injured. Of the injured, two have already been discharged from hospital, and I am glad to say that the hospital authorities state that there is no serious concern for the other eight.

I am sure that I am speaking for the whole House—and not least for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, in whose constituency this happened—in expressing my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who were killed and to those who were injured by this tragic event.

Equally I am sure the whole House would wish me to praise their workmates for the energy and courage they showed in starting immediate rescue work, and also the speed and efficiency of the emergency services.

As yet I have no information about the cause, but Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate was on the site very soon after the collapse. A Factory Inspectorate team, led by a senior civil engineering inspector, is now on the site carrying out a full investigation into all the circumstances of the accident.

Mr. Heffer

On behalf of the Opposition I should like to add our voice to that of the Minister in expressing sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who were killed and injured in this tragic accident. We should also like to praise the prompt action of the work people and the emergency services. The reports in the Press indicate how the work people and the supervision of the job got to work immediately to rescue those involved in the accident.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that in the construction industry there is a continuing and serious problem in that 19.2 per cent. of all fatalities in industry are in construction, and that last year 196 construction workers were killed—only seven fewer than in 1970—although there were 50,000 fewer workers employed in the industry? Obviously there was a marginal increase. Is this not a serious problem which requires prompt action?

I understand that there is an increased number of similar accidents both here and abroad. The Science Research Council, a Government body, and the Construction Industry Research and Information Association have announced a £30,000 inquiry into bridge and scaffolding collapses. Whilst this is welcome, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give us an assurance this afternoon that no further work will continue on this type of construction and that it will be temporarily suspended?

We welcome the fact that the Department, through the top inspectorate, is carrying out a full inquiry. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a report of that inquiry is given to the House and the country at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Macmillan

On the last of those points, I certainly will see that the House and country are informed of what is discovered on the site as quickly as possible. There will, of course, be other inquiries going on, including the coroner's inquest, unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate.

I cannot at this stage give an assurance about the cessation of work of this particular nature, because it is not certain by any means what was the cause of this accident.

I am glad that our attendance was very prompt. The local construction inspector was on the site very quickly—within an hour, or not much more than an hour after the accident—and we had our full team at work starting first thing this morning.

There are problems of technology involved. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, research into the theoretical and practical problems arising from scaffolding is being started with the full support of the Science Research Council and other public sources as well as from the industry.

The Concrete Society and the Institution of Structural Engineers issued a report on falsework in 1971. This was the basis of a discussion between the Department of the Environment, the Institution of Structural Engineers, the Concrete Society, the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, the National Association of Scaffolding Contractors, the British Standards Institution and the Department of Employment. It is hoped that this will form the basis of a code of practice for dealing with this particular type of temporary construction. So both the theoretical and the practical aspects are being covered.

Mr. Vaughan

I, too, should like to be associated with what my right hon. Friend said. My constituency immediately adjoins the area where this tragic accident occurred and a number of the people involved were my constituents. From the contacts I had late yesterday afternoon and evening, it appears that there was an outstandingly rapid and efficient response—a model of the way a disaster of this kind should be dealt with. We are all very grateful for what my right hon. Friend said today. As there have been a number of accidents of this particular kind recently, may I ask whether the results of the inquiry will be made public? Could we, as soon as possible, have an answer to a simple question: is this the result of human error or a fault in the design?

Mr. Macmillan

There are two aspects. One concerns bridge design, which is a matter for the Department of the Environment, and the other is the method of construction involved. In this case use was made of large-span steel girders supported by vertical structures. It was not scaffolding in the conventional sense of the term. This method was used successfully in this particular case on the span for the first carriageway. It is not possible at this stage to say what has gone wrong. I should not like to prejudge any inquiry. It would be quite wrong to do so. However, I hope to have the facts of the case as soon as possible, to inform the House and the country thereof, and to ensure that the fullest possible investigation is made into the underlying as well as the immediate causes of the accident.

Mr. David Stoddart

I, too, should like to express my sympathy for the families of the victims of this dreadful accident and add my praise to the men on the site who acted so quickly and the emergency services which got into operation immediately.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is a fact that there have been a number of these accidents? I believe that recently there were two in Germany. Has the Department examined the reports of those accidents and, if so, what lessons have been drawn? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the inspectors to pay particular attention to the claim that was made in the television broadcast last night that one reason for the accident may be that speed of construction took precedence over safety?

Mr. Macmillan

If that were so, it would be a matter for Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate. I think there is a slight difficulty here which the hon. Gentleman posed. Naturally, the Factory Inspectorate takes account of and studies the technical reasons and causes of accidents throughout the world as part of the preparation for its work. It is impossible to relate experiences in other parts of the world to a particular accident, however similar it may be, until one has examined the causes of that accident.

Mr. Sydney Chapman

Whilst appreciating that there will be the fullest searching inquiry into this tragic accident, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend agrees that, because of the nature of this accident, it is essential that there should be an interim statement as soon as possible to confirm whether the initial collapse was in the temporary shuttering, in the temporary support to the bridge, or, indeed, in part of what was going to be the permanent support to that bridge? In view of recent similar accidents in different parts of the world, the last being in Pasadena, California, only last week, if it was one of the latter two reasons, surely there should be a searching departmental inquiry into the whole principle of structure at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Macmillan

My hon. Friend is quite right, but the problem is getting through the physical debris resulting from this accident and examining all the possible failures or causes which could have brought it about. I shall, I hope, have some information fairly rapidly within the next few days, and, depending on the nature of that information, I shall be able to judge what course of action should properly be taken.