HC Deb 25 October 1973 vol 861 cc1471-5

Mr. Mulley (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement about the explosion yesterday at the Effiingham Street, Sheffield, gasworks causing loss of life and serious injuries.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make a statement about the tragic explosion which occurred in Sheffield yesterday morning.

I would first like to express my deepest sympathy for the relatives of the men who were killed and for those who were injured. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join with me in so doing.

Three men were killed and one was seriously injured when an underground storage tank exploded at the premises of the East Midlands Gas Board in Sussex Street, Sheffield. A number of members of the public were also injured by flying debris. The men concerned were employed by a contractor to alter pipe-work and a supporting gantry for the pipework at this very large underground storage tank. I understand that up to some 15 months before the accident the tank had contained primary flash distillate used to enrich the town gas.

It is too soon yet to say what caused the explosion. It is a tragic example of the kind of industrial hazard to which the Chief Inspector of Factories drew attention in his recently published Annual Report, where members of the community might be put at risk in addition to industrial workers.

A full investigation into the accident is taking place now. A team of inspectors of factories, including a chemical inspector with specialist knowledge of industrial explosions, was at the scene of the accident within about an hour. A deputy chief inspector with responsibility for industrial fire and explosion hazards, who was returning from Scotland to London, was diverted immediately to the scene of the accident. The Chief Inspector of Factories and a superintending chemical inspector with specialist knowledge of industrial fire and explosive hazards are also now in Sheffield making a personal investigation.

I am keeping in closest touch with my Chief Inspector of Factories, who will, of course, present me with a full report as soon as possible.

Mr. Mulley

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for his full reply. I should like to join him, particularly on behalf of my hon. Friends who represent the workmen who were killed and injured, in expressing sympathy to the relatives. Would he say a little more about the form of the inquiry? I am grateful for the speed with which the investigation is taking place, but could the right hon. Gentleman say whether there will be a public inquiry and whether a report will be published at the end of the inquiry? In the meantime, since these tragic circumstances could be repeated elsewhere, can he say whether there are any steps which he or the Gas Council could take to avoid such a calamity?

Mr. Macmillan

I think it is a little soon to say whether anything more could be disclosed at a public inquiry than can be disclosed by the sort of investigations which are being undertaken. The situation is not yet as clear as I should like it to be, because my inspectors have not yet had time to clarify it. Certainly I will consider either a public enquiry or publishing a full report from the Chief Inspector when I get it.

What happened in this case was this. The tank had been licensed under the Petroleum Consolidation Act, but the licence had lapsed when the tank ceased to be used for the purpose of storing the distillate. It had been filled with water, and, so far as I understand, it had been drained before his work began and the work started on the structural steel on top of the tank. It was then that the explosion occurred.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

May I, as a representative of a neighbouring constituency, be associated with the message of sympathy and say that those in the Hallam constituency have benefited from the gas produced by this works and appreciate it? May I add that the Effingham Gasworks has been a leader in the transition from ordinary town gas to natural gas, and, therefore, it is important to the whole of Sheffield. Will my right hon. Friend indicate the extent to which safety provisions operate when contractors are brought on to the site?

Mr. Macmillan

I ought to make clear that the factory inspectors were not consulted before work started on the site; nor, indeed was there any statutory obligation for them to be consulted, although it is common practice to do so in this sort of situation. The tank concerned was not, and had not been, in use as part of the manufacture of town gas for 15 months preceding the accident, and, therefore, there is no question of any repercussions, as it were, in the gas supply in the locality. It is rather difficult to say anything further about the nature of the accident until I get further reports from the inspectorate.

Mr. Harold Walker

I am sure that all on this side of the House—indeed, in the whole House—will wish to be associated with the expressions of deep sympathy to those who have been bereaved and also to those who have been injured.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the House has repeatedly pressed for a full debate on the relevant recommendations of the Robens Committee, and this is now re-emphasised by the tragic accident which occurred in Sheffield.

I regret that the Minister's statement—perhaps one can understand it—does not at this stage provide for an inquiry, but so far as we know the facts, this tragic incident appears to be a very similar kind of occurrence to that at Dudgeon's Wharf on the Isle of Dogs in July, 1969. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the subsequent inquiry into that occurrence was held under Section 33 of the Fire Services Act 1947 and that it was heavily criticised by the inspector at the time because of the restrictions and inhibitions which it imposed. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he has not ruled out a full and independent inquiry, and that there will be an inquiry under procedures which do not have the same inhibitions and which will allow the inspector to investigate fully and report?

Will the right hon. Gentleman in due course report to the House whether the recommendations of the Dudgeon's Wharf inquiry, which seem to have particular relevance and application in this case, were followed in this case, and whether the recommendations which had specific reference to his own Department have been implemented?

Mr. Macmillan

One of the problems is that the Dudgeon's Wharf incident is not a true parallel to this one. The Dudgeon's Wharf problem was one of demolition, and this led to the drawing up by my Factory Inspectorate of proposals to protect and to give guidance to people engaged in this sort of work. Some of them are protected under sections of the Factories Act. This was not a work of demolition. It was a work of alteration and the erection of a superstructure on top of an existing tank. This is one of the problems. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall conduct our inquiry under whatever system seems best to get to the root of the matter and to get the full facts before the public.

Sir D. Renton

Does not this accident, with serious industrial hazards to which my right hon. Friend referred, point to the need to encourage the revival of industrial emergency services which have not been operating on the same scale as they should since civil defence was abolished by the previous Government?

Mr. Macmillan

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that suggestion. I think there has been no criticism of the fire services or the rescue services, and I hope there has been no criticism of the Factory Inspectorate, for the speed with which they got to work in this case. Where there is perhaps more need to look carefully at this incident is in the degree to which there may have been a lacuna in the responsibilities concerned, of a nature which the Robens proposals were designed to put right. We hope to deal with it in due course, as I have already told the House.