HC Deb 06 March 1973 vol 852 cc371-80

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss an issue of great importance, It deals with the movement of chemicals and toxic materials on the roads. The genesis of the debate was an incident last year in my constituency, when a wave of poison gas swept through a residential area and withered and destroyed little gardens and vegetation. It came from a steelworks, where the workers were disposing of drums fed by road to the works from a chemical firm. The drums contained liquid chlorine. The workers disposing of them had no knowledge of the contents, and as they burnt a hole in a drum a poisonous cloud swept the area. Many of my constituents suffered greatly from breathing trouble, and a passer-by collapsed and was taken to hospital.

No one on the spot knew how to handle this hazard and the poison gas continued to flow from the drum for two hours, until a group of specialists from ICI in Runcorn, many miles away, arrived to plug the hole. I attach no blame to the chemical firm concerned. With refreshing honesty, it admitted the mistake. It was a human mistake. Within two hours it had sent a team of competent emergency safety men. It offered compensation, and so far I have had no complaints from any of my constituents that they were not satisfied.

But my point is that the situation could have been much more serious than it was. It was a rather dramatic incident, but almost every day we read of road accidents involving the spilling of toxic materials, chemicals and liquids, to the great danger of the community and the men who drive the transport vehicles concerned.

On the borders of my constituency, a few years ago, a lorry-load of chemicals leaked and finally exploded, injuring 17 people and damaging 40 houses. Only a few months ago a dreadful accident took place on the M6. A poor woman was literally dissolved in acid. One can barely imagine the agony of that woman and her family. The accident arose out of a collision, when sulphuric acid spilled out over the road. Only a few weeks ago an accident took place on the border of Belgium and France, when several people were killed and 100 houses shattered by the explosion of a great tanker after a collision.

Mr. John Loveridge (Hornchurch)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the severity of the danger and the damage that might arise if a lorry carrying nuclear waste were to be hit and release its horrors upon us?

Mr. Edwards

We have an Act of Parliament and regulations dealing with the movement of radioactive material. The workers responsible for its transport are specially trained. They have special protective clothing. They are not allowed to touch the material when there is an accident. There is 24-hour monitoring. I want a similar Act of Parliament and regulations to protect the community and drivers from chemicals and toxic materials.

I have studied all of our Acts and regulations, including the one which I have mentioned. I cannot find anything in them laying down a standard for the men who move dangerous chemical and toxic materials. There is no standard training. It is left entirely to the firms concerned. I was so interested in this subject that I commissioned the Aston University of Birmingham to do a survey on the problem. Some of the information collected on my behalf is most interesting.

I discovered from the inquiries made among a cross-section of drivers—members of my own union, the Transport and General Workers Union—that 25 per cent. of those moving chemicals and toxic materials on the roads had no training whatever in the handling of these products in the event of an accident. Among contractors I discovered that 39 per cent. of the drivers had no training at all. It is scandalous that no compulsion is involved in the training of the men handling these products. I can not find in any of our Acts or regulations any protection for drivers. They do not even mention it. Only when the whole community is in danger do we begin to think in terms of the danger to these workers.

I do not want to make these general statements without pointing out that some of our best firms, such as ICI, BP, Distillers and Allbright and Wilsons, have a very efficient srevice. They monitor the movement of their products 24 hours a day. They have trained safety squads ready to move in when there are dangers. Many of the contracting firms are not capable of handling the dangers that might arise for the community in an emergency. We need new legislation. At the moment this problem is under the control of four Government Departments. Surely we need one Department handling the new problem that faces the community as a result of the dangers arising from the development of new products almost every month of the year. We do not know the full extent of the danger of these products because some have never seen the light of day before.

In our discussions we discovered that the drivers had some very constructive suggestions to make. Not all were discontented. Many praised their firms and said they did not know what more could be done. Here are a few quick points from the replies to interviews and questionnaires. The drivers say that most vehicles are not adequate for the job. They are not strong enough. The noise and vibration in the cab should be cut down. They do not even have time to think. They say that continental vehicles are much quieter than ours. They also say that first-aid kits must be carried in all vehicles. They suggest that such lorries should have lights all round the back end, as the continental vehicles have. There should be a tightening up within the companies who contract transport to ensure that these drivers know what they are carrying, and that they are trained. There should be courses on safety and health. All these points come from the men concerned. They say that car drivers need to be more aware of what is involved in the driving of tankers and what they carry. It may be that larger labels or notices are required on the wagons. All chemical drivers should be medically examined on a regular basis, and so on.

I could give many more examples. I have mentioned these to show that drivers want to co-operate in finding a constructive solution to the problem. Many firms are supposed to supply what are called "transport emergency cards". Anybody who grumbles about a driver earning £50 a week who reads what a driver needs to do in an emergency would have second thoughts. In an emergency the driver should notify the police and fire brigade immediately, stop the engine, mark the road, warn other road users, keep the public away from the danger area, keep off the wind, put on protective clothing, in case of spillage contain liquids with sand and earth, avoid absorbing injurious substances, refrain from using a water jet on a leak in a tank, and, if a substance has entered water courses or sewers, or contaminated streams, advise the police, keep containers cool by spraying with water, and so on.

That is what these men are supposed to do in case of emergency. These are very important instructions, which are difficult to comply with. Nevertheless, they give information. But what do we find on inquiry? Taking a representative section of drivers, of those for manufacturing companies only 25 per cent. use these cards, and of contracting companies only 22 per cent. use them. Is it not time that this transport emergency card was made compulsory? This should be written into new legislation, so that at least a driver knows what he is handling. Every material that is being handled should be clearly defined. With information of this kind in his cap a driver should know how to deal with an emergency. I have touched only on the fringe of this important subject.

Only a few days ago I read a report based on what is happening in South Wales, where 18 chemicals had been found dumped in farmland and three poisonous chemicals had seeped into rivers and waterways. There must be control over the handling of waste materials. It should be monitored. In order to safeguard the community local authorities should be alerted and should know what is being dumped in their areas. There must be compulsory training and medical examinations for drivers, and a proper monitoring system 24 hours a day. If this is not done, I tremble to think of the terrible accidents that may take place in some congested area, which will cause the community and the nation to wake up to the danger of a catastrophe that we have avoided so far.

10.25 p.m.

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

I am grateful, as I know the House will be, to the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) for raising this subject tonight. The hon. Member has special experience, gained over the years, of dangerous chemicals. It is an exceedingly important and exceedingly urgent matter, and I am glad that the hon. Member has spoken so frankly. Towards the end of January we had a broadly similar debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke). The fact that we have discussed this problem twice on the Adjournment within six weeks is a measure of its importance.

I am extremely sorry that the constituents of the hon. Member for Bilston suffered in the way they did from the accident he described. I acknowledge the fair comment he made on the chemical company concerned on that occasion.

The hon. Gentleman underlined the danger to the men who drive these lorries. We read of terrible tragedies when men are trapped in their cabs in ordinary accidents. How much more ghastly is an accident to a vehicle carrying one of the substances that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I hope to persuade him that much of what he wants to be done is either already being done or soon will be done by regulations we have in mind. The accident he mentioned involved organic peroxide. We are to bring organic peroxides within our control in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of training drivers in emergency procedures. That is more for the Department of the Environment than for the Home Office, and I will draw the attention of the Department to what the hon. Member has said. He complained that responsibilities within Government are diffused. However much we might like a tidier solution, inevitably more than one Government Department is involved. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will draw to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment the wider problems he mentioned at the end of his speech. My colleagues and I are working closely together, through sitting on committees and through regular consultation at working level.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the Robens Committee's recommendations which the Government have already accepted in principle. We shall soon be bringing forward further proposals for implementing the Robens recommendations in the direction of an across-the-board control which I am sure he will welcome, not least because of the extra safeguards this will bring to workers, wherever they may be, who have to handle dangerous substances either when they are static or in transit.

We are rightly and increasingly alarmed about the dangers which have been referred to. It is estimated that the number of dangerous substances of an inflammable, corrosive or toxic nature that are regularly being carried by road in this country is over 1,000. Some of them are very dangerous indeed, particularly if there is a fire or if they are spilt after an accident.

To put the matter into perspective, we already have regulations applying to more than 300 of these substances and to those which constitute the bulk in weight of the tonnage we are talking about. In the case of the substances that are already brought under control, we require notification of any accident involving death or personal injury from the substances concerned. During the last five years 15 such accidents have been notified, involving 35 injuries of which, alas, nine were fatal.

We acknowledge the need for more and better controls over the conveyance of these substances, and since 1965 the Government of the day have been working on a systematic plan to introduce and carry out a comprehensive scheme of regulations under the general guidance of my right hon. Friend's Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances. The existing controls, which are based on the Explosives Act 1875 and the Petroleum Consolidation Act 1928, have been introduced as a result of a system of priorities which has been drawn up by the advisory committee. As a result of its work, the first regulations were introduced in 1968 and they applied certain basic safety requirements and labelling controls to vehicles and packages used for the conveyance of inflammable liquids. Three years later, in 1971, these were followed by a similar range of requirements for corrosive substances. That is the present position.

Looking to the future, later this year we propose to impose similar controls over organic peroxides such as those in the accident which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Draft regulations have been prepared. We are circulating them within a few weeks to everyone concerned with the conveyance of these substances by road. We attach great importance to these consultations to make sure that we get the regulations right. We are also preparing regulations which will expand the existing controls over inflammable liquids and corrosive substances by laying down requirements about the construction and operation of the vehicles used to convey them. These construction and operation regulations also should be made before the end of this year, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that they will take full account of the accident on the M6 to which he referred.

The next priorities after that will be to extend the construction and operational controls to organic peroxides, and then to extend the whole range of controls over dissolved, liquefied and compressed gases and toxic substances. Here, I hope that we can draw lessons from the accident in France to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We believe that those are the major hazards.

Later again we want to extend controls to substances which give off inflammable gases on contact with water, to spontaneously combustible substances, inflammable solids and oxydising substances. Each of these classes includes certain potentially very dangerous substances, but in general we believe that they represent a lesser degree of risk, and they are not carried in the same quantity as the substances with which we are dealing earlier in the programme.

The labelling regulations provide that packages above a certain size containing the substance liable to control must be marked with the name of the substance and with a label showing the nature of the hazard. Similarly, the regulations which we shall be introducing about construction and operation are intended to ensure that all vehicles are fitted with suitable engines, exhaust and electrical equipment, and that tank vehicles and their fittings provide an adequate degree of safety. All these requirements will surely help to increase the safety of drivers, for example, by laying down the strength of tank shells, the cabin separation distances, the stability of vehicles, and matters of that kind.

So much for the general range of the regulations and the programme which we are carrying through as urgently as we can. However, there are two other matters about which I wish to tell the hon. Gentleman. The "Tremcard" scheme was referred to by the hon. Gentleman as being very important. I share his hope that it will be pressed ahead with quickly. My latest information is that in the scheme, which is sponsored by the Chemical Industries Association, 100 Tremcards have been issued already and a further 100 are with the printers and should be available for distribution in May—and it is hoped that a third batch of 100 cards will be issued before the end of the year. I am sure that all the companies concerned will take note of what the hon. Gentleman said near the end of his speech.

The other safeguard, in addition to the statutory regulations, is round-the-clock advice. We have given guidance from the Home Office, and we shall go on giving it, to the emergency services about the steps needed to control fires or spillages involving dangerous substances. This kind of advice is constantly changing, because new substances are constantly being evolved. We need some facility for the emergency services to be able to get advice at short notice about any particular substance. I acknowledge the help that we are already receiving from some of the major chemical companies which provide a round-the-clock advisory service for incidents involving their products.

We have asked the Chemical Industries Association to consider whether arrangements could be made to provide the emergency services with advice of this kind on a nationwide basis. The association has set up a working party to consider the feasibility of such an arrangement and that working party is expected to report in the summer. We shall eagerly look forward to what it says.

Another point that I should mention, though it is more the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, concerns the suggestions that have been made about route control. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries is approaching firms engaged in conveying dangerous substances to establish the routes customarily taken by their vehicles so that he can consider whether more might be done, through the imposition of voluntary controls or otherwise, to ensure that routes are adopted for this traffic which will reduce the prospect of accidents and will give rise to the least danger to the public in the event of such accidents occurring. In all this we have in mind the twin duties, which surely we all feel, to the workers concerned and to the public.

Whatever may be done to convey more of these substances by rail—many hon. Members want this to happen—we must assume that a large and increasing volume of this traffic will still travel by road. On the whole, despite the tragic accidents of which we know, the industry's record is good. In the absence, so far, of extremely wide-ranging controls, this is a tribute to the responsibility of the firms and drivers involved.

I very much hope that the increasing degree of control which I have sketched to the House, which we shall be introducing steadily during the months and years ahead, will do more than offset any likely increase in the volume of this road traffic. This greater safety can come about only if, recognising the dangers of these substances, other road users exercise the greatest care when they are in the neighbourhood of such loads. If that is to be achieved, surely the first need is for all members of the public—hon. Members can do a great deal to help in this respect in their constituencies—to be more conscious than they now are of the significance of the various warning notices that these vehicles carry. When the new marking controls come into operation the Government propose to bring them more widely to public notice than has been the practice hitherto.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I hope that he feels, from this quick sketch, that we are tackling the problem urgently. We certainly intend to go on doing so, for the greater safety of both the workers and the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.