HC Deb 15 November 1973 vol 864 cc666-9
Mr. Sydney Chapman

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about the explosion in the sporting cartridge packing section at the Imperial Metal Industries plant at Witton, Birmingham, yesterday when a number of people were killed and injured.

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

At about 11.30 a.m. yesterday an explosion occurred during a filling operation in the shot-gun cartridge filling area at the factory of Imperial Metal Industries Ltd., Witton, Birmingham. I greatly regret that six people—four women and two men—were killed, one other person was seriously injured, and 14 people suffered minor injuries.

Since this factory is licensed under the Explosives Act 1875, an inspector and an assistant inspector of explosives went at once to the scene of the accident to make urgent inquiries into its cause. They will report to my right hon. Friend as soon as possible. I should like to express the Government's sympathy with the relatives of those who have died and with those who have been injured.

Mr. Chapman

May I and my constituents be associated with the expression of the Government's sympathy, felt more keenly by myself because a number of those injured were literally my next-street neghbours?

May I ask my hon. Friend to express the gratitude of those around at the prompt arrival of the emergency services and particularly of the representative from the explosives section of the Home Office, who, I believe, arrived at the scene of the accident within two hours?

Will my hon. Friend confirm that at present the cause of this tragedy is a complete mystery, that both the Home Office and IMI thought that the risk was one of fire rather than explosion? In view of the inevitable speculation that this is causing, may I have my hon. Friend's confirmation that the inquiry, already begun, will be thorough but swift and that a public statement will be made as soon as possible?

Mr. Lane

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I join him in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services, because obviously this was a very severe explosion indeed and, alas, the worst accident in an explosives factory for a number of years. My hon. Friend is right in saying that the cause is so far a complete mystery, and I do not want to speculate about it. My hon. Friend is right also that the material being used carried a risk of fire rather than of explosion. The inquiry will certainly be very thorough and as swift as possible, and its findings will be published.

Mr. Julius Silverman

As the scene of this accident is just over the border of my constituency, and as many of my constituents work there, may I add my sympathy to that already expressed by the Minister and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) to the relatives of those who have been killed and to those who have been injured?

I support the point made by the hon. Member for Handsworth that, in view of the speculation, which is already rife in the area, about causes of the explosion, the inquiry should be as expeditious as possible and at the same time exhaustive and should uncover the cause of the explosion, both to safeguard the lives of people in the area and people who work in similar areas and also to still speculation which is inevitable after such a mysterious explosion.

Mr. Lane

We shall certainly carry out the inquiry as quickly as we can, consistent with thoroughness. We have been in touch with the inspector on the spot this morning. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

Mr. Kinsey

I join in the expressions of sympathy with the relatives of those killed and with those who were injured. Two of those killed—Jean Wardell and Patricia Harris—were constituents of mine.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the IMI factory has a good safety record. When he allows the investigation to go forward, I am sure that it will be very careful and thorough. I ask him not only to look into the cause of the accident but also to ensure that those affected—the relatives and the injured—have every help from whatever source they need it.

Mr. Lane

As far as I can undertake that, certainly. I am glad that my hon. Friend has pointed out that this factory has a very good accident record up to now. The last recorded injury was more than 30 years ago.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

The Opposition wish to express their very deep sympathy with the victims.

As the process involved is subject to Home Office clearance, will the Under-Secretary consider for the present not giving clearance until the results of the inquiry are known, assuming that the inquiry will be as rapid as possible?

Mr. Lane

Yes. The licence for this process was issued in 1959 and the process had been inspected as recently as September of this year, only two months ago. If there is any cause for anxiety, of course we will hold up issuing any further licences if that seems prudent.