HC Deb 27 April 1976 vol 910 cc345-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Ellis.]

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent)

The purpose of this debate is to explain the damage and distress caused by continuing earth tremors in Stoke-on-Trent, to object to a crazy decision to pull out experts and equipment investigating the causes before the work is completed, and to outline proposals which will help people in the city and in many other areas in Britain.

In the past 10 months there have been over 90 tremors in Stoke-on-Trent. Naturally, those of high magnitude cause the greatest concern, but the continuance of many minor tremors gives rise to fears of future major ones. The anxiety of the residents is understandable. Homes have been rocked, walls have been split, chimney pots and roof tiles have been shaken to the ground. That is the visible damage, but people are also speculating on posisble damage to the foundations of their homes, damage which may not be visible.

It is a serious situation requiring urgent attention. People are entitled to know the causes and what steps, if any, can be taken to avoid further tremors. They are also entitled to know who or what is responsible for them. They are entitled not only to peace of mind, but to the fullest possible information to assist them with claims for compensation.

Since last August a research programme has been carried out under a skilled working party which included representatives from the local authorities, the NCB, Keele and Durham Universities, the Institute of Geological Sciences, the Department of Energy, and also a representative of the Department of the Environment. Equipment was set up which established a full seismometer network, and it has provided valuable interim data. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done, and it is imperative that the equipment should continue to operate in the area until definitive results have been established.

This brings me to the curious role played by the Department of the Environment. The Department was asked to give financial support to this vital project, and after I had written to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), he told me on 22nd December last year that he would "look sympathetically" at the request and treat it "urgently".

Perhaps he had a miserable Christmas or an unhappy New Year, but by March he was writing to say that he was accepting the advice of the Institute of Geological Sciences to pull out the equipment in mid-May—in a couple of weeks' time. He added, however, that he would be willing to reappraise the position rapidly if the situation ever changed sufficiently radically.

The then Secretary of State made an odd statement in his letter. He said that he was bound to accept the advice of the Institute. But he was bound to do no such thing. He was perfectly free to disregard any advice and to make his own decisions on matters of this kind. In any case, he was faced with conflicting advice, because the conference of interested parties which included the Institute of Geological Sciences, as well as seismological, geological and mining experts —stated explicitly that more data would have to be obtained before firm conclusions could be drawn as to the main causes of the tremors.

Quite apart from that, I believe that the Secretary of State had a responsibility, not shared by the institute, to consider the social problems faced by people who suffer damage to their homes and property. Those problems cannot be solved by an automatic acceptance of advice from a geological institute. However, in a later letter the Secretary of State said that the equipment might be made available for a period of some extra months.

Since then there have been two developments. The new Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), has examined the problem and found it possible to take advantage of the availability of equipment and to continue monitoring until October. I wish to record my warm appreciation of my right hon. Friend for meeting me to discuss these problems within hours of taking on his heavy departmental responsibilities and for extending the deadline to October.

I must add, however, that it is woefully inadequate. What I require tonight is a specific commitment that the Government will support and finance the investigations for as long as they are necessary—probably for two or three years. The cost is a mere £16,000 a year—infinitesimal to the Government, but crucial to the research.

The second development—and I am delighted to see present for this debate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of the Environment—is that there have been more tremors since the former Secretary of State rejected my request. In his letter of 23rd March the former Secretary of State quoted the working party as commenting on the substantial decline in the incidence of tremors. It was revealed at the conference in Stoke-on-Trent on 15th April that the tremors had now become more frequent again, having reached a peak of 12 per week in mid-March.

The implications are clear. Tremors are continuing to occur and more damage may be caused. While there is no cause for panic, there is cause for concern. If the Department rejects my request tonight, I must ask the Minister to ponder this possibility: supposing there is a major earth tremor and a gas main is fractured and people are injured or killed—where will the Department stand then? What will it say?

I must tell my right hon. Friend that I know where I shall stand and what I shall say. That is why I am asking for a specific and categorical commitment tonight that the equipment will stay for as long as it is required. If it does not, I am afraid that the Department and I are due for a long, hard, relentless, grinding battle and there is no question whatever of my withdrawing. If it takes 1,000 Questions and more, 1,000 Questions will be asked. If it takes more, more will be done.

I have great confidence in my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I want to place on record that I believe this conflict will not be necessary, and I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend's reply in the hope that he will find some solution to the problem that is acceptable to the people of Stoke-on-Trent. I have great faith in him that a solution will be found.

I wish to remind the Minister of the words of the working party in its report less than two weeks ago: …to terminate the investigation now would be a waste of valuable effort and prevent the determination of factors responsible for the tremors which caused so much public fear and concern… The working party added this interesting opinion: …continuation of the investigation will yield useful scientific data of importance to the public at large, and to science and industry.… My final proposal to my right hon. Friend is that the Government should go much further than completing the investigation in Stoke-on-Trent. They should use the splendid organisation now set up in that city as the headquarters of a national monitoring network which would gather vital information for the future. The present investigations will yield material of national interest and importance. It would be helping not only Stoke-on-Trent but the whole country if the Government could develop and expand this ideal centre for a national seismological network. It is ideal because it has developed skills and organisation, it is in the centre of Britain, it covers a mining area, it has Keele University nearby, and it has the abundant good will of the scientists, the councillors and the people.

I refer not only to Stoke-on-Trent but to the whole of North Staffordshire—as I see my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) present in the Chamber. I am delighted to be able to compliment him on achieving his new office as Under-Secretary of State for Employment. He is also interested in this problem and was active in the matter before he took office.

The Government cannot only help to solve the problems of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire but benefit the whole country if they grasp this opportunity.

10.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)

I should like at the outset to express appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for the restrained way in which he put the case for his constituents, which I know causes him great concern for very obvious reasons. I should like to deal with each of the points he has raised. I thank my hon. Friend, too, for his confidence in the Secretary of State and myself. That confidence is well founded.

We hope—and I shall outline the reasons shortly—to stay with our advisers and with the equipment in the neighbourhood of Stoke-on-Trent until we have solved the problem of the cause of these difficult earth tremors. I agree entirely that my hon. Friend's constituents, and the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), are perfectly entitled to have what information and reassurance can be provided. The difficulty at present is that the cause of these earth tremors is not known.

I know that my hon. Friend will agree that it will not be possible to give the reassurance that he wants for his constituents until the cause has been found. What I can give is an assurance that we shall take every possible step to find that cause, and we shall call upon all the best scientific and engineering evidence and advice that is available to bring that about.

In this case we are urgently examining the proposals of the Institute for Geological Sciences for a more broadly based study covering a wider area. This is to serve national purposes, but we shall very much hope that bringing that about will also serve the local purposes that my hon. Friend has in mind arising out of experiences at Stoke-on-Trent.

I think that my hon. Friend was possibly a little hard on the former Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), who was acting upon the advice available to him in the Department. I have looked at the advice on which my right hon. Friend acted and I understand the reasons for his first reply to my hon. Friend. We have now changed the emphasis of that reply, mainly because of the increased incidence of earth tremors.

The tremors started to cause concern in 1975. In the autumn of that year and the early part of 1976 there was a drop in the number of tremors. The first tremors, which caused chimneys to fall, were quite severe, but their frequency and severity decreased and there was a belief, which led my right hon. Friend to reply to my hon. Friend as he did, that the problem was probably a passing phenomenon and that whatever had caused it had been pacified. That belief proved to be unfounded when there was further disturbance.

Between September 1975 and March 1976 nearly 90 tremors were recorded, though most of them were too small to be discerned by the inhabitants of Stoke-on-Trent. Six tremors were severe enough to be felt, particularly the two on 9th and 13th April.

The second wave of tremors was not as severe as the first, but the fact that there was a second wave was sufficient to convince the Government's advisors and the new Secretary of State that our original expectations were not being realised and that we needed to do more. The IGS therefore changed its priorities.

My hon. Friend spoke about the work that Stoke-on-Trent wishes to do in the next two or three years at a cost of about £16,000 a year. In the last few days we have received new proposals—my hon. Friend will not expect me to comment on them now, but I think they will form the basis of our decision—to establish a wider network of evaluation involving equipment for a much longer time than we first thought would be necessary. This equipment would be based at Stoke-on-Trent in the first instance, but would not form the national network for which my hon. Friend was asking.

Stoke-on-Trent will be the focal point at the inception of the new approach. The assurance my hon. Friend wanted— and which I am happy to give—was that this new equipment and new approach, involving several Government Departments and based on the advice of the IGS and others, would remain in Stoke-on-Trent until we have found the cause of these tremors. That is the most important assurance that I can give to my hon. Friends and their constituents on what I know is a matter of concern for them.

My hon. Friend referred to the fears of his constituents in the event of a gas main being fractured. That is a new point. I understand that gas mains have not so far been fractured as a result of earth tremors. Nevertheless, as it is a new point, I undertake to look into the matter and to write to him when I have taken advice about it. I think that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, as no gas main was fractured in the earlier tremors, which were more severe than the second wave, our information was that this was not a high risk. However, I agree that it is a risk which should not be taken. Therefore, I undertake to make further inquiries in order to reassure him on that point.

I think that I have now covered all the points made by my hon. Friend. As the Minister responsible, I shall be readily available to my hon. Friend at any time if he wishes to come and see me, and I shall keep him fully informed about our information on this matter. I am sure that, under the new arrangements that I have announced, we shall have sufficient expertise and equipment located in Stoke-on-Trent to ensure that we find the cause of this trouble. The equipment and expertise will be made available in Stoke-on-Trent until the cause is found. I recognise that is the only real assurance that can be given to people in that area.

I hope that my hon. Friend will find this reply more satisfactory than earlier correspondence. I hope, too, that he will understand the reasons for the earlier correspondence. There was a dip in the incidence, but when the second wave came we realised that what he was saying was right and that we should act accordingly. I hope that we shall do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.