HC Deb 25 January 1973 vol 849 cc791-802

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

The subject which I have the privilege to raise tonight—namely, accidents caused by toxic substances—is not one which was chosen by accident, and, indeed, I am sure that a number of hon. Members will be delighted that it has been selected for tonight's Adjournment debate.

I am dealing with accidents in the home and on the roads, and accidents to people must be our first concern, but there are also accidents to animals, plant life, and, indeed, even to buildings and their contents. Gone are the days when a bottle of aspirins or a bottle of disinfectant were the only hazards at home. Also gone are the days of contaminated water and contaminated food, with the possibilities of typhoid and tuberculosis. In their place we have the hazards of paraquat and things of that kind and detergents dressed up in all kinds of attractive forms.

The roads are a different matter. Roads have become the battleground where conventional weapons are being replaced by juggernaut lorries and tankers with their cargoes of death or potential death on routes quite unable to cope with them, even the motorways. We all remember the recent tragic case of the unsuspecting woman dissolved by concentrated sulphuric acid—unsuspecting because there was no reason for her to know of the hazard.

It is established beyond doubt that a dangerous problem exists, although there has been some exaggeration of it. One now hears about every case, just as during the Mountbatten inquiry into prisons we used to hear about every single escape, however small. These accidents are very much in the public mind, and the media of communication have rightly given coverage to this problem.

There is concern about this topic in the public mind and in this House. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), who has been most active on this subject; he has had a great deal of trouble in terms of the unlabelled merchandise which has come into his constituency. There are other hon. Members concerned about these matters, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who is sponsoring a Bill dealing with transport by road. I know that I cannot ask for legislation this evening, and am not doing so, but I expect the Minister to say that he is able to make regulations, and I hope that his powers are adequate. Will the Minister tell us about that?

I hope that the Minister is happy about co-ordination of Government action in this sphere. If he thinks it is satisfactory I hope he will tell us how it is done and what progress is being made. What future plans are there? Those future plans should not be precipitate plans, nor procrastinatory. I use that long, ridiculous and cumbersome phrase because it seems to sum up all the processes which exist in public life and take a long time. I know that there are many interests to be consulted and that there are many hon. Members who watch the interests of industry, and quite rightly. Some things may not be the responsibility of my hon. Friend, but Ministers have a collective responsibility, and I assume that it was from choice that the Home Office chose to answer the debate. I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend will forcibly represent to his colleagues in other Ministries the points which are not his immediate departmental concern and which he regards as important.

I wish now to deal briefly with accidents in the home where children are at risk, although it would appear that education has safeguarded the position of those who are in nursery education or education at a later stage. But there are cases where parental care is all-important, and some parents are not as careful as others. We have sad cases of children eating pills which look so much like sweets. Both of my own children have got hold of fairly innocent medicaments at one time or another. They have taken them to pieces to see inside those lovely red and yellow capsules. Children take a delight in playing with small objects. There are many medicaments which look like parts of toys and small coloured plastic objects. I hope that the Minister will represent to the toy manufacturers that they should look into that. Many toys involve putting little objects into slots. It is great fun for children to find a box of pills to put into slots, perhaps chewing a few at the same time.

Then there are detergents, some of which have even been labelled "containing real lemons". There was the case of a right reverend bishop who was given a glass of lemonade by his clergy which laid him out on the floor, not because it was alcoholic—the bishop could stand that—but because it was a detergent with a delicious lemon colour, though not a lemon flavour. The Minister in the other place seemed to imply that this was not too catastrophic and that the bishop need not have worried too much about it because it did not happen very often. However, he took the matter seriously but thought that the bishop was a little over-concerned.

We must keep a sense of proportion but there are a great number of people now who run the risk of being poisoned by an overdose of some new life-saving drug or a new super cleansing substance, or fall victim to a wonder weed killer. Ten people die this way every week according to figures issued in July 1972 by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents which have never been challenged. Also in the home and partly outside it is the increasingly popular science of do-it-yourself. All kinds of processes which were once confined to the factory are used and are now performed in the home workshop. There are products which are used in commercial undertakings with great precautions but are used by untrained persons elsewhere at the risk of a serious accident.

But, having survived the home, let us proceed out on to the roads. Careful control is exercised over dangerous substances carried by rail and air. But what of the roads? Are the powers adequate? My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East has introduced a Bill which has some bearing on the subject, and I hope it will progress. On the roads we must know our enemy. Objects carried by road transport should be labeled; tan- kers should be labelled, too. We assume that the vehicle being used is suitable for the purpose. But perhaps my hon. Friend will say something about that, too, because I believe there are regulations afoot for dealing with the construction of vehicles. [Interruption.] I am dealing with roads; I will not stray on to the high seas.

Mr. W. E. Garrett (Wallsend)

Regulations are laid down by the Chemical Industries Association, which advises people, especially haulage contractors, on this matter.

Mr. Cooke

If the hon. Gentleman had contained himself a little longer—I do not wish to sound cross—he would have found that I was coming to that point. I was going to pay tribute to his friends on that subject.

I shall not stray on to the high seas. That point has been reasonably and adequately covered in debate. I am trying to cover matters which have not been covered. In any event, this is a subject with which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are fully acquainted, and I should not wish to bore you by straying on to it.

What is the size of the problem on the roads? I understand that 3 million tons of sulphuric acid travel across Britain each year, most of it by road, and it can go practically anywhere. We have police escorts with flashing lights for large loads, not of sulphuric acid but of houses, transformers or industrial equipment of one kind or another. That is not so now with dangerous substances.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one worrying matter is that many loads of potentially dangerous chemicals will be brought in from the Common Market which will not be covered by insurance?

Mr. Cooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he has a particular problem and has been most active in defending the interests of his constituents in Ipswich. Of course, his interests go far wider. I think that he is interested in preservation of the national life and limb.

We live in an odd world—a sort of Monty Python world. An eccentric lady in the city of Bath was proceeded against by the city council because she wanted to paint her front door yellow in the Royal Crescent or the Circus—one of the finest parts of the city. However, there is nothing to prevent a lot of drivers with their explosive tankers collecting there to admire the view and take their lunch on the grass while their tankers are fuming and possibly potentially explosive. I think perhaps my hon. Friend owes us a few remarks about that.

I pass from the grand dwellings of Bath to the humbler houses and homes of my constituents in commercial Bristol. Many of them cannot see the daylight out of their windows because of commercial vehicles parked outside, the drivers of which no doubt enjoy the salubrious transport café down the road—and long may that continue. Not only can my constituents not see the daylight but their very lives are in danger day and night, and particularly at night in certain districts where lorry drivers have their lodging houses and leave their vehicles unattended. Lorries can be stolen for various purposes—sometimes just for a lark—and terrible things can happen. Death lurks within them.

What I have said so far relates to public roads. But private property is not immune. I recall recently a vast affair, which turned out to contain nothing more than liquid concrete, driving down the avenue to a famous historic house in Dorset—not my own—carrying away the eighteenth-century wrought iron gates, smashing up the overthrow, and arriving at the front door. The company replaced everything beautifully, but this could have been an explosive tanker carelessly driven and the private owner would seem to have little redress.

Lorries and tankers have a habit of smashing things up and driving on. All my gate posts, solid stone and 3 ft. thick, which face on to the A.35 have been knocked down at one time or another. I caught one man who was responsible for knocking down some of my young trees only because one was still hanging on his lorry and I happened to see it as I came from the railway station. This is a personal experience, but such experience is widespread.

Chemical spillages do serious damage to the countryside, polluting rivers and so on. But in The Times this morning it was reported that a lorry collided with a load of oranges. The lorry contained chemicals. The oranges fell on the ground. Children picked up the oranges, which were poisoned, and ate them. Why were the oranges not picked up? Are any instructions given to drivers?

Then there is the problem of spontaneous reaction between chemical loads of one kind and another. When chemicals are put into a tanker and there is a residue, what is done about it? Is milk or anything else for domestic consumpton ever carried in a tanker which has been used for carrying chemicals? It might happen that two lorries come into violent contact, producing the most catastrophic explosion, even if the two substances by themselves are perfectly innocent. I have said enough to show my hon. Friend that things could happen which require attention.

Dangers exist which are not recognised by statute. Perhaps the new regulations which I believe my hon. Friend has in mind will be able to deal with them. There are also dangers which are not immediately obvious. There was the case of a fire brigade which cooled down a building—it could so easily have been a lorry—by pouring hundreds of gallons of water through a hole in the roof. But the building contained sodium metal. The result was that the roof was blown 200 ft in the air. That could easily happen with a lorry if there is no clear indication of what a lorry or tanker contains.

The idea of transport emergency cards being placed in each vehicle so that one knows what to do in the event of an accident might be an excellent one. I should like to pay tribute to the chemical industry because it is leading the way in these matters. However, not everyone will fall into line. I hope that my hon. Friend will help the responsible elements in industry and elsewhere with their good work. I hope that I can accept as true the widespread reports in the top newspapers that the Home Office will produce regulations this year covering five categories of substance—namely, inflammable, corrosive, organic, peroxides, and gases. I hope that my hon. Friend will think long about this matter and ensure that everything possible is included.

Against the tales of woe which I have been reciting, there are many firms which are most conscientious. There are dedicated and skilled drivers who are devoted to the safety of their load and the safety of the public, and they safely reach their destination. But the public need to be reassured that the Government are deploying their forces and have the forces to deploy.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to get the Home Office to reassure the House that the Government are taking the matter seriously. I am sure they are. But are they happy about what they will be able to do? Hon Members will not rest until they have secured a far greater protection for their people from the new hazards of the technological age.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle-upon Tyne, West)

It is high time that the Government introduced a clear colour code to be used on corrosive household items so that every item is marked clearly with a distinctive colour. It is all very well saying that the majority of containers are marked clearly in red letters, etc. But young children, the teeny-weenies, cannot read the word "poison" or understand what a skull and cross bones might signify. I urge the Under-Secretary of State to give serious consideration to that matter.

I know well enough the argument that corrosive substances should be put where teeny-weenies cannot get hold of them. But a mother with a couple of youngsters might be in the middle of washing and about to put some bleach in the washing machine when there is a ring on the door bell. She may drop the bleach, and when she returns the tragedy has occurred.

Finally, I pay tribute to the chemical industry for the efforts it has made to make safer the carrying on the roads, chiefly in tankers, of corrosive loads. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for initiating this debate.

10.45 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) and other hon. Members for what they have said. The Government and the public are greatly concerned about all these problems, and we want to get on as quickly as we can with additional safeguards for the public. I say that straight away before giving as detailed a progress report as I can in the time available on the points that have been raised.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Department was satisfied. We are never satisfied, though we believe that much has been done and that on the whole we are moving in the right direction. I join my hon. Friend and the hon. Member opposite in the tribute they have paid to the responsible elements in industry. I know what help we are already getting from the chemical industry in particular, and we look forward to more. The point has been well made that this is to some extent a new problem. For most of the century we have had powers to make regulations to protect the public by controlling the keeping and movement of certain dangerous substances, but modern technology has brought the problem into the stark outlines in which we see it at the moment. My hon. Friend put it vividly. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) is understandably concerned about the problem. That was why in 1965 the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances was formed to advise the Home Secretary about the storage and conveyance by road of dangerous substances.

I will talk first about movement and say a few words at the end about the position in the home. The committee has been working on a programme of extending the existing controls, many of which were in existence already when the committee was formed, to the new fields as the need arises. That is the method by which we are still proceeding. The committee drew up an order of priorities according to the degree of risk of the substances concerned. We now propose that regulations which govern the conveyance by road of inflammable liquids and corrosive substances should be followed next by regulations applying to organic peroxides, dissolved, liquified and compressed gases, and toxic substances; and in that order. That is the basic programme. We think that these are the major hazards. Later on we want to go on to a number of other things such as substances that give off inflammable gases when they come into contact with water, substances that are spontaneously combustible, inflammable solids, and oxidising substances. That is the general programme ahead of us.

My hon. Friend asked whether we are satisfied with our powers. We are—reasonably so. So far, we have been able to act under the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928, which, although it was originally concerned with petroleum, it has been possible to extend to other substances in the regulations that we have made under it. That has not held up the introduction of controls so far.

What we have done covering inflammable liquids and corrosives is laid down in these basic safety requirements and we have also controlled the labelling of vehicles and packages. Later this year we shall impose similar controls over organic peroxides and—this will be the biggest step forward—we shall extend the existing regulations to cover the construction and operation of vehicles. That will include the point on parking that my hon. Friend mentioned. Other regulations for other sorts of dangerous substance will follow after that.

We all wish we could get on even quicker. My hon. Friend will understand that it is a complicated matter. There are more than 1,000 dangerous substances, and the regulations in themselves apply to several hundred. We are very anxious not merely to get the job of identification properly done, which is not simple, but to consult thoroughly all the bodies concerned. Whatever we say in the House, the effectiveness of regulations like these lies very much in the acceptability of the controls to the people who have to apply and enforce them.

Mr. W. E. Garrett (Wallsend)

And the will.

Mr. Lane

Yes, the will to enforce them, too. I accept that. We have no reason to think that local authorities in particular are slow to do their job in this, so it must be a co-operative effort between the Government, the local authorities and the various interests involved.

I mention in passing the tragic accident recently on the M6. We look at every serious accident to see what lessons we can learn from it. On that particular accident, which was so much in the news, we have recently had a report from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Explosives, and before we bring in the regulations about construction and operation which I have mentioned we shall consider very fully whether we can makes those regulations even more effective by taking account of the M6 experience.

I would confirm another point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West—the question of coordination between ourselves and other Departments involved. It is not a simple situation. The Department of the Environment has its own responsibilities about road transport. The Home Office equally has its responsibilities governing the safety of special vehicles, and how they are built and operated, under the broad direction of the Department of the Environment regulations. I think that these Departments work adequately together. We are represented on the same committees. We had a meeting only recently with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries about the lessons of the M6 accident. We shall continue working together in producing the new regulations.

I would also remind my hon. Friend that the present arrangements are to be reviewed anyway as part of our consideration of what has been suggested by Lord Robens' Committee on Safety and Health at Work, because that proposed that we should have across-the-board control of dangerous substances. When we put our proposals arising out of Robens to the House soon, I hope that hon. Members will feel that we are on the right lines in the changes we are proposing.

That is all I can say about movement on the roads, except to assure my hon. Friend that we are very much aware of the public concern and want to do everything we can to allay it. But it is not simply a matter of making regulations. There is the question of public awareness of the warnings, signs on vehicles, and so on.

That leads me to speak about the related problem, mentioned first by my hon. Friend, of risks to health and safety in the home. Here again, it is a matter of awareness. The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Robert C. Brown) talked about coloured labelling. That is one idea which has often been mooted. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West talked of poisoning. I have a frightening list of the ordinary household substances which have been taken by children. It is a very alarming problem. There have been suggestions that every harmful household substance should have to have a warning label of some kind. This has already been done under the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933 in the case of particularly harmful products.

The position about pesticides is fairly well covered; there is the Pesticide Safety Precaution Scheme. But the problem is that most of the products we use from day to day can have harmful effects if taken in excessive quantities. If we put warnings on all of them, very soon people would take no notice of those warnings. It is a matter of judgment and degree. But I assure hon. Members that we are very anxious to get the right balance between under-warning and over-warning on particular home products, and I hope that we shall succeed.

Ending on a note of sheer common sense, the only real safeguard is that household substances that could cause harm ought to be kept in a safe place out of the reach of children. That cannot be said too often. We are trying to have more and more publicity because we want to encourage parents to take these obvious elementary precautions. Publicity is of the greatest importance, not only because of accidents in the home but because of accidents on the road, and I couple with that the whole problem of human error and human care.

We cannot think that just by making regulations we have solved the problem. We have to go on watching driving standards and seeing again—this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment—what more can be done over routing, driving regulations and possibly speed limits. This field is very much open to review, and we are looking over it all to see what more can be done on the environment side.

I conclude by again thanking my hon. Friend for raising this matter. We shall do all that we can in the Government to keep the regulations up to date and effective. We shall rely equally on better awareness by the public and better care by drivers. We shall consider the points that have been made in the debate and to which I have not had time to reply. I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friends in the other Department to what has been said that is their responsibility rather than ours. We are determined to press ahead as urgently as we can with further action that will minimise the risk of accidents and provide the maximum possible protection for the public.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.