HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1736-43
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the Flixborough inquiry.

I said in my statement on 3rd June that I would set up a public inquiry which would deal with all the issues raised by the Flixborough disaster. I have come to the conclusion that this could best be done in the following way.

First, we shall set up an inquiry under the Factories Act to establish the causes and circumstances of the disaster; and shall ask for advice about any immediate lessons which we can learn from what happened. I have asked Mr. Parker, QC, to serve as Chairman, and Dr. Pope, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, to be Deputy Chairman. The following people have agreed to serve as members: Dr. Davidson, Reader in Chemical Engineering, Cambridge University. Mr. Bill Simpson, Head of the Foundries Section of the AUEW. I shall ask this court of inquiry to report as quickly as it can, consistent with a full examination of what occurred at Flixborough.

The work on site in connection with the investigation which was instituted by the Factory Inspectorate immediately following the explosion is now virtually completed, though metallurgical and chemical investigations are continuing and will take some time to complete. The information and evidence so far gathered will now be given to the members of the inquiry. The investigation team—and all the resources of the inspectorate—will be available to make such further inquiries as the members of the inquiry think desirable.

Secondly, this disaster has naturally raised public concern about the risk of similar disasters at other plants of this kind. The whole matter will have to be taken up as soon as possible by the Health and Safety Commission to be set up shortly under the legislation now before Parliament. This was specifically recommended by the Robens Committee.

However, in order that an immediate start can be made on the examination of these problems, I have, after consultation with those of my colleagues who have a responsibility in these matters, decided to set up an expert committee to begin work on the nature of the hazards presented by these large-scale plants and on the ways in which people who work in them, or live near them, can be safeguarded and reassured. I shall ask the committee to report in due course to the Health and Safety Commission so that Ministers can be advised on what further steps need to be taken, including the licensing of plants which present particular hazards.

The expert committee will later this year have the full resources of the Health and Safety Executive to be established under the new legislation to help it with its work. But we do not intend to wait upon the new legislation. I am establishing immediately within my Department an organisation specifically concerned with these major hazards; and the Home Secretary has agreed with me that we should at a very early date bring together within this organisation the Explosives Inspectorate and people from my own Factory Inspectorate. This will ensure a unified organisation to deal with these problems.

Mr. Prior

May I put two questions to the Secretary of State? First, as soon as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill receives the Royal Assent, will he be able to announce the members of the Health and Safety Commission, and can we get on with that quickly?

My second question relates to the expert committee. Will it be able to pay visits to similar plants where hazards are expected? If it will—and I think it should—will it be able to consult local residents to discuss with them their fears about these plants? I think that this would go a long way to allay the fears which may be felt by a lot of local people near these plants.

Mr. Foot

Under the legislation which is going through the House we shall proceed as swiftly as possible to the establishment of the Health and Safety Commission in order to get it into operation. I understand that it will come into operation in October, and immediately after the Bill is through we will proceed to select those who are to serve on the commission.

The expert committee, of course, will be in operation before that. I hope that it will be set up within a fortnight and in operation in four to six weeks. It will be able to visit neighbouring areas as well as going to the places themselves which may come within this list.

Mr. Crouch

What thought has the right hon. Gentleman given to the question of where responsibility lies for determining what is a hazard of this nature? Does it lie with the expert committee? Is it for the local authority to find out? Is it for the company to decide what that hazard is? Sometimes a chemical hazard can be relatively limited on a small scale, but magnified it can become a real hazard to the population.

Mr. Foot

What the hon. Gentleman says is true. The expert committee and later the commission will have full responsibility for these matters. It would not be a question solely of relying on what the companies might say about it.

Mr. Torney

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a factory in my constituency, known as Allied Colloids (Manufacturing) Co. Ltd., which makes chemicals? Its existence, because of the Flixborough disaster, causes a great deal of concern and apprehension to my constituents living around that factory. Will evidence be taken about that factory before the inquiry which is to be held?

Mr. Foot

I am sure the inquiry—not the Flixborough inquiry but the other inquiry—will be able to take evidence of that kind. I am sure that long before that time my hon. Friend will have sent details of information he may have on the subject to my Department and we will look into the matter immediately.

Mr. Torney

Details have already been sent.

Mr. Foot

If the information is already there I am sure we are already inquiring into it.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for coming to North Lincolnshire. When he speaks to the expert committee, will he consider very seriously the problem of Immingham, in the next constituency, where the people are very worried about this sort of disaster? Will he put on record our thanks to the WRVS for the work it did immediately after the disaster? Is this not an example where it would be a good thing for this country to have the Civil Defence back in operation?

Mr. Foot

When I referred to the original disaster I made reference to the voluntary services which acted so promptly and magnificently in the Flixborough crisis. This refers not only to the voluntary services but to the mining inspectorate, the fire service, the police, the Salvation Army and others. I hope I have not omitted anyone from the list. One of the most impressive things I saw there was how the immediate crisis was dealt with.

People in many areas throughout the country are worried because of what happened when the accident took place. It is because of those worries that we have set up this expert committee, along the lines I am suggesting, as well as the inquiry into the Flixborough disaster.

Mr. John Ellis

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for the care and consideration he has shown throughout this inquiry to my constituents who have been bereaved and whose property has been damaged.

I also thank my right hon. Friend on behalf of my constituents for his very comprehensive statement, which shows that he has listened to the representations made to him by my constituents and me. Does he regard the inquiry set up by the Transport and General Workers' Union and other unions as being helpful? Will they and other bodies in my area along with other individuals who may have been affected, be heard before this inquiry? Will nothing that the inquiry is doing prevent the claims of the affected people in my area being paid out?

Will my right hon. Friend look immediately at the position of the Factory Inspectorate? I know, from cases in constituencies surrounding my own, that it is under very heavy pressure. My right hon. Friend may need to ensure that the whole force is strengthened to carry out the task which other hon. Gentlemen and I are laying upon them at this time. They must be dreadfully overloaded.

Mr. Foot

I am grateful to my hon. Friend not only for the questions but for the truly magnificent services he gave to his constituents during the whole of this crisis and the way, in particular, in which he assisted in ensuring that there could be established very speedily proper relations between the shop stewards, the trade unions on the spot and the Factory Inspectorate. We in my Department are deeply grateful to him for all the assistance he gave to us and to his constituents during the crisis.

I have nothing to add to what I said previously about the responsibility for the claims. On a previous occasion I gave the House a statement which was made by the company on that matter. I said we would have consultations about it to ensure that the claims were fully discharged. I am certain that will be carried out.

I believe that the Factory Inspectorate is the most important aspect of the matter. Anybody who saw what the inspectorate did on the spot will realise the strain imposed on it by disasters of this character. Therefore, there is one immediate incontrovertible lesson to be learned from the Flixborough disaster. We must strengthen the Factory Inspectorate. We must recruit more inspectors and pay them more money to get them.

Mr. Kimball

Referring to the expert committee on environmental pollution which the right hon. Gentleman has announced, will he ensure that the evidence taken on the west bank of the river, in Amcotts village, as well as on the Flixborough site, is considered?

Would the right hon. Gentleman also draw the inquiry's attention to the very humane and expeditious way in which the Nypro firm has been dealing with the damage? My constituents are highly satisfied with the very fair treatment they are receiving from this firm and the very prompt payment they have been given.

Without underestimating the human disaster and tragedy, could the right hon. Gentleman say what progress has been made with finding alternative employment for 500 people in North Lincolnshire who have lost good, well-paid jobs in this explosion?

Mr. Foot

I shall not try to answer the hon. Gentleman's last question yet because I have not the answer to it. There are other matters we have to attend to even more urgently. The inquiry will take into account the dangers for people in surrounding areas, as will the other expert inquiry, although that subject will come even more within its province.

The worst aspect of this terrible tragedy is the people who were killed in the plant. That is the peril we must avoid most importantly of all. That does not exclude all the other aspects of the inquiry.

Mr. Cryer

I welcome the Minister's statement. If he is not satisfied with the standards pertaining at Flixborough will he assure the House that he will be pre pared to bring to the House immediately further legislation to strengthen the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill? Some of us feel that that Bill will not prevent another Flixborough.

Mr. Foot

I know of the constructive criticism my hon. Friend has made during discussions of the Health and Safety Committee. We will take into account what he and others have said in drawing up the regulations within the next few months. Our debates have greatly fortified the Department in proceeding along the way in which we are to tackle the problem. I am grateful to the hon. Member even if we have had to reject some of his amendments. I believe that the commission will be able to carry out the task properly. It will be able to do its work. Otherwise I would not have supported it as it stands. We must learn as swiftly as possible from Flixborough and take that into account. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do that.

If, when we bring forward our regulations, my hon. Friend or other hon. Members think we have not learnt fully from this appalling disaster, as we should have done, we must debate the matter in the House and we must ensure that we do what should be done.

The most important aspect of the whole business is that we should recruit more factory inspectors who are able to do the job. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me.

Dr. Winstanley

With regard to the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement and his very welcome proposals to set up an organisation to monitor these hazards on a continuing basis, does he recognise that there is a great deal of anxiety, which may or may not be justified, in many parts of the country about dangers of this kind? It is, therefore, essential to establish open lines of communication through which ordinary people can channel their fears and anxieties to a body that can act. Will he ensure that when this body is set up it will be readily accessible to all members of the public who have fears in this regard?

Mr. Foot

That is one of the aspects which I am sure the Health and Safety Commission will operate when it comes into being, and it is an aspect which was debated when the Bill went through the House. Prior to that, of course, the Department of Employment is very ready to receive any information which anyone may wish to offer from particular areas. Immediately we had the first reports from Flixborough, the Chief Inspector tooks steps to discuss the need for a review of safety precautions with the Chemical Industries Association. Letters were sent and discussions took place with representatives of large-scale chemical plants all over the country. So even prior to the inquiry we have tried to learn something from what happened.

Mr. Tinn

Bearing in mind that incidents may well happen despite all the precautions, will my right hon. Friend, in collaboration with his colleagues in the Home Office, look into the procedures and experience that have grown up on Teesside, which has the largest petrochemical complex in the world? Those procedures include co-operation among public services like the police and the fire service, private industry and public industry, in order to take action after incidents to minimise damage, to coordinate efforts to deal with it. No doubt even on Teesside we still have a great deal to learn. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the question of dealing with the situation after it has arisen is also considered, as well as that of avoiding it?

Mr. Foot

Yes, we are drawing up what we consider to be a judgment on what happened and what we can learn about immediate action to be taken after these disasters. But it is also the case that everyone who has seen what happened at Flixborough for himself will agree that the Factory Inspectorate, along with the many other services, acted with the utmost promptitude and skill.