HC Deb 03 June 1974 vol 874 cc867-77

Mr. John Ellis (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the explosion which occurred at Flixborough, near Scunthorpe, on Saturday 1st June, and if he will order a public inquiry to be held.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

At about five o'clock on Saturday 1st June the factory of Nypro UK Limited, situated in the village of Flixborough in North Lincolnshire, was shattered by a violent explosion followed by a fire which raged all the following day and may not yet have been extinguished.

Twenty-nine people are either dead or are missing and must be presumed dead. There is severe damage to property near the scene, less serious damage over a wide area, and minor damage has even been reported from many miles away.

All Members of the House will join me in sending a message of deep sympathy to the relatives of the dead and missing. I should also like to add my sympathy to the injured and to those who have been made homeless. A tribute must also be paid to the emergency services in the area, including the voluntary services, whose efforts to cope with the fire and destruction and to help the injured and homeless deserve the highest praise.

The plant is owned jointly by the National Coal Board and the Dutch State Mining Company. It uses a number of highly flammable raw materials of which a major one is cyclohexane in the manufacture of caprolactam. This is a raw material used in the manufacture of Nylon 6. This is one of a small number of plants of this type throughout the world and the only one in this country. As there is already a shortage of this material, there will be economic problems to be added to the death and destruction which have resulted from the explosion.

Within two hours of the incident, locally-based members of the Factory Inspectorate were on site and they were joined late on Saturday evening by a deputy chief inspector from London. On Sunday the Under-Secretary and the Chief Inspector visited the site. They were later joined by three experts from our London headquarters and an electrical inspector. The Chief Inspector has now formed an investigation team to gather the facts as soon as possible while memories are fresh. The team will be under the control of the superintending inspector for the area and he will be able to call on any help that he may need. By courtesy of the police, with whom they are closely co-operating, they have formed a temporary headquarters in the police building in Scunthorpe. For the moment access to the plant is still limited by the fire, but witnesses are already being interviewed

. This investigation is proceeding with all speed, but I must decide in what framework it should now be set. Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate has been worried for some time about the escalation of risk associated with certain new technologies. It is no secret that the Chief Inspector is on record in his annual reports as expressing his own concern, and that concern is now bound to be widely shared.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill which is now going through the House will greatly assist in relation to this kind of development, since it will provide for the licensing of some of these plants. Arrangements for close co-operation between planning authorities and the new licensing controls will be within the scope of the Health and Safety Commission when it is set up. To that extent I believe that the new legislation will be a major contribution to control in the future, but it is not the case that all efforts to deal with this problem have been allowed to wait upon legislation.

In 1969 the Factory Inspectorate and the Department of the Environment set up a joint working group the object of which was to look at the implications for planning authorities of the sitting of factories which may involve a major hazard. As a result of this an interdepartmental procedure enables planning authorities to call upon the advice of Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate when considering applications for new developments. This procedure is, I believe, developing in a way which may well provide a pattern for the future.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that it is necessary to hold a full public inquiry into these events, but hon. Members will also understand that the problems which are raised by the explosion are not confined solely to the matters for which I hold responsibility. I will urgently consult with my colleagues to decide the form the inquiry should take and the terms of reference it should be given.

Decisions about this must clearly be taken as soon as possible, but I believe that the House and the country will also appreciate that there is a double problem—first, how to ensure that the public inquiry is properly rigorous and far-reaching and, second, to learn immediately, if we can, whether there are first aid measures to be taken to prevent any repetition of this terrible tragedy elsewhere.

Mr. Ellis

May I first pay my condolescences to all those who have been bereaved or injured in this disaster? May I also thank the police, firemen, ambulance and hospital workers, teams from the steelworks, and all voluntary associations typified by the Salvation Army, who worked together so magnificently and well? May I also thank mayors and chairmen, their executives and workers, including the new Humberside authority, for the role that they played and are continuing to play? Last but not least, may I pay tribute to my constitutents who, as I saw throughout a night of horror and terror, refused to panic in the face of other dangers and rumours which fortunately did not materialise?

May I now thank the Minister, and in particular the Under-Secretary, for his and his Department's efforts? Will he add his representations to mine to the Prime Minister on the need to improve organisation nationally and to have one senior Minister in charge to co-ordinate at this level? Arrangements were plainly not adequate in this respect.

Will my right hon. Friend immediately make representations to his ministerial colleagues so that the homeless, those needing the help of social security, and so on, can be speedily helped?

Regardless of the inquiry, will my right hon. Friend immediately review safety procedures in similar chemical plants and look at the possibilities of restricting large amounts of chemicals and gases to be processed and stored, with a view to preventing any recurrence of tragedies on such a disastrous scale?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend agree that the cost in terms of grief and misery that my constituents have had to suffer and are still suffering on the altars of wealth and so-called technical achievement is too high for a so-called civilised society to bear, and will he now concentrate his and the Government's attention on ensuring the safety and well-being of the community and ending this rape of the environment?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that the whole House appreciates the strength of the emotion which my hon. Friend shows on behalf of his constituents in the horror which he and they have had to face over the past few days.

I hope that arrangements will be adequate to deal with the immediate situation, but if there are any ways in which we can improve them we will seek to do so. I hope to proceed to my hon. Friend's constituency with him later in the week to see whether we can add anything to what has been already done by those who have done so much to deal with the immediate problem.

I think that most of the other questions my hon. Friend put to me were dealt with in my main answer. Certainly, there is no question in our minds but that there must be a full public inquiry of the most far-reaching character. Nothing can be hidden in a matter of this character. However, hon. Members will appreciate that, to have the knowledge that we need to deal with the immediate situation, we cannot wait for the full inquiry in order to take full action on these matters and we will be seeking to do so in the best way that we can. We will also seek to co-ordinate as best we can the social services and the health and education services to assist in dealing with the problems.

sir G. Howe

Will the Secretary of State accept that the whole House will join him in extending very deep sympathy to the relatives of those who have died and to those who have been made homeless and also in extending gratitude and praise to those in the emergency services and voluntary organisations who have brought so much help so quickly?

Will the Secretary of State also accept that I for my part follow the reasoning behind his decision to separate the inquiry into two halves, but there is widespread anxiety to get at the cause of this incident as quickly as possible through the investigation team which is now at work and, in particular, to exclude any suggestion of sabotage if that is the right conclusion?

In the light of that investigation, will the Secretary of State consider also whether the interdepartmental procedure he described which enables consultation to take place ought not as an early step to be tightened to require consultation when developments of this kind are in hand?

Can the Secretary of State give the House some indication of how quickly it will be possible to repair the economic damage from this disaster?

Finally, will the Secretary of State accept that I am sure the whole House will accept the decision to establish a full public inquiry into the matter? Because of the breadth of multiplicity of interests involved, will he give further consideration to the establishment of an inquiry comparable to that established into the Aberfan disaster under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act which combines authority with fairness and enables us to draw the lessons which should be learned for the whole of society from such a disaster?

Mr. Foot

To take the last question first, we will consider every possible form of inquiry and see which we think is best suited to deal with this case. We do not exclude the proposal made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman for an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act.

It is not possible for us to estimate the amount of economic and other damage which has been done until at least we are able to get on to the site. That has not been possible yet. Therefore, it is not possible properly to answer some of the questions which right hon. and hon. Members and the country obviously wish to have answered. It would be unwise for me to try to answer some of them before we have further information.

As for making arrangements under the interdepartmental procedure obligatory rather than voluntary—not that they are voluntary in present circumstances, as I understand it—the Health and Safety at Work Bill, which is now in Standing Committee, and even more so the regulations that can be made under that Bill, can ensure that these procedures can be made much tighter and much more effective than anything we have had in the past. This is one of the main purposes of the Bill.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Will the Secretary of State note that the Members on the Liberal Bench wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to relatives and with the expressions of thanks for the excellent job done by the emergency services?

Can the Secretary of State give the House any indication of when this factory was last inspected by the inspectorate? Secondly, can he give us an assurance that the inquiry which he will set up will include within its ranks people who are technically qualified in this field? Finally, can he say whether the company involved had given a statement to its employees of the risks under which they were working such as the company would now be required to give once Clause 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work Bill becomes law?

Mr. Foot

An inspection was carried out in November of last year and it was conducted by those in the chemicals inspectorate who were fully qualified to do so. However, I think it would be wrong of me to comment on what was said at that time and to say what might be the views expressed in any inquiry now on the report which the inspector made then.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

The Minister will be aware that on Teesside we have one of the largest chemical complexes in the whole of Europe and, indeed, the largest chemical complex in the United Kingdom. Is he aware that in 1969 two men were killed in a tragic explosion which occurred in the ICI nylon factory there when cyclohexane was ignited? I am sure that the Minister understands the terrible anxiety felt on Teesside as a result of the tragic explosion at Flixborough. Will he insure that chemical companies such as ICI make clear to the residents in areas like Teesside exactly what risk there is in the plant, and make it clear to my constituents and those in the whole of the neighbourhood the dangers which are present, because there is a strong feeling that the company has not made available all the information which it should have done? I shall be grateful if he can given an assurance that companies will make this information available so that the residents are made aware of the dangers which are present.

Mr. Foot

Of course, I understand the anxieties which my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have expressed because of this terrible explosion, and the fears which may exist in other areas. I should emphasise to my hon. Friend that the process on Teesside is different from that which was in operation here and, as I said in my statement—indeed, I said it for this purpose—this is the only plant of this type operating in this country. However, I appreciate that that does not remove people's anxieties. One of our purposes immediately will be to see what immediate steps can be taken in other cases to try to learn more of what happened. But that policy to some extent depends on inquiries which we are able to make.

As for the more general question which my hon. Friend raised about requiring firms to make much more public what they propose to do and the implications of what they are doing, I believe that all those desirable requirements are covered by the Health and Safety at Work Bill, and certainly the passage of that Bill and the regulations which will accompany it will mean that much fuller information will have to be given in the future, whatever may have been the situation in particular cases in the past.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what happened at Flixborough has wide and urgent impli- cations in other areas where there is already too great a concentration of high fire risk installations, such as Canvey Island where 30,000 of my constituents are hemmed in by massive oil, gas and chemical storage, including 1,200 tons of cyclohexane, the material used at Flixborough, and all of which is within a few hundred yards of people's homes? Yet, on top of this, my constituents are being required to accept two new oil refineries.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that successive Governments have consistently rejected the opposition of local authorities to this situation, and have ignored the warnings that I have uttered in this House about these unacceptable risks to my constituents? Is he further aware that his colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment in the last fortnight has refused an inquiry into the totality of risk to our Thamesside communities? May I ask him, therefore, whether the inquiry that he will set up will be wide enough to take into account the matters which I have raised? Will he also ask the Prime Minister to take a grip on the situation and order that these two refineries cease building until such time as the findings of the inquiry are known?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman naturally expresses the anxieties of his constituents on the subject, as did my hon. Friend and as many other hon. Members may wish to do. It is only natural that they should seek this opportunity to do so. I am not in any sense deprecating that fact. I only say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I understand it, it is a different process from that which was carried out in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis). It is a storage provision in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and not the manufacturing process which was involved in this explosion; so there is a distinction. However, when the hon. Gentleman asks whether all the matters which he has mentioned will be covered in the terms of reference of the inquiry which we are proposing, that is precisely one of the reasons why I say to him that we must consider how wide those terms of reference are, but we must also see how we can do this so that we can learn as quickly as possible from this explosion whilst carrying the matter further.

The hon. Gentleman also touched upon the amenity aspects, which are extremely important. These matters will be greatly affected and, we believe, greatly improved by the proper operation of the Health and Safety Commission which will be set up under the Health and Safety at Work Bill.

Mr. Prescott

Will my right hon. Friend accept that I, too, wish to identify myself with the commiserations which have been extended to the relatives and with the tributes which have been paid to the emergency services on Humberside for their efforts this weekend?

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that this incident has caused great anxiety in my constituency, and particularly among those on the north bank who were affected by the explosion? They are concerned at the possibility of the new technology creating even greater explosions than were envisaged before. We have other plants engaged in this new level of technology on the north and south banks of the Humber, concentrated into small areas two or three miles from huge housing estates. Would my right hon. Friend consider looking at this matter in the short term and will he issue a reassuring statement because of the great anxiety felt by many in the area? I realise that this is a difficult thing to do, but we shall have to make some statement on those lines to reassure people about the further possibilities of explosions with this new type of technology.

Mr. Foot

I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said, but it is a general problem and, as I indicated in my original statement, the Chief Inspector of Factories has himself already issued warnings about some of the developments of these new technologies. What has occurred is bound to mean that the whole country must pay more attention to his warnings.

Mr. Brittan

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in spite of the inter-departmental procedures which have been referred to, there is considerable anxiety in areas such as that near ICI Wilton, where processes of this kind are already in operation? Will he accept that the only way of effectively allaying those anxieties is to ensure that the terms of reference of the inquiry are sufficiently wide to investigate the safety procedures in operation at plants other than the one in question and to make recommendations relevant to plants everywhere in the country?

Mr. Foot

I understand the representations which the hon. Gentleman is making and which have been made by others. I am certainly not proposing to limit the terms of reference of the inquiry before we have even considered exactly what they should be. Several of the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised are now being debated in the House of Commons in preparation for the Bill which is being put on the statute book to deal precisely with some of these questions.

Mr. Selby

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, while conveying our sympathy to all concerned, consideration will be given to people who are still living in the area, whose houses have been damaged and who need compensation for that damage? Is he aware that following the great storm in Glasgow five-and-a-half years ago people are still getting demand notes for their share of the repairs?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend raises the question of compensation, and, of course, many people in the stricken area are bound to be asking the same question. I understand that the firm issued a statement yesterday in which it said: A committee has been formed to take urgent action regarding compensation to all who have been affected. The Management wish to state today that the company will fully meet its commitments. I should add that the Government also will have to have consultations with the firm about the composition of that committee and how the work is to be done. Certainly that matter is being dealt with.

Mr. Crouch

I think it is appropriate that I should declare an interest, in that I have a considerable interest in the chemical industry and synthetic fibre industry. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is satisfied that there is a full appreciation in his Department, in the Home Office, in the Department of Industry, in the fire services, the local authorities and all the other authorities which are concerned when factories are built that, while there are dangerous processes in the chemical industry, those dangers are known, the safety precautions exist, and that as the economic scale is enlarged in those plants so the scale of danger is enlarged? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that that knowledge is fully appreciated in all the departments which I have mentioned?

Mr. Foot

I am not sure that I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question in the terms in which he put it. But this terrible tragedy shows that the safety precautions are quite insufficient, and that much more must be done about it. The public inquiry will be one way by which we shall hope to discover methods by which we can assist that process. However, I feel that we are all entitled to emphasise in the House that, even before this terrible tragedy had happened, the fact of the passage of the Health and Safety at Work Bill through Parliament is evidence that we realised that insufficient was being done. I commend to the House once again what the Chief Inspector of Factories has himself said on this subject. He has given warnings to the country, and our job is to make sure that those warnings are translated into practical effect.

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