HC Deb 10 May 1976 vol 911 cc86-91

'(1) A county council may in relation to any substance likely to involve special hazard to persons engaged in normal duties of fire fighting in its area—

  1. (a) prescribe standard uniform signs or symbols or warning notices in a form approved or prescribed by the Secretary of State clearly indicating the nature of the substance and the existence of danger to persons so engaged;
  2. (b) by notice require the occupier of any part of any premises used for the manufacture or storage of the substance to affix, within such reasonable time as is specified in the notice, and thereafter keep in such conspicuous position or positions as 87 the county council may direct in or on the part of the premises used for such manufacture or storage, the appropriate sign, symbol or notice.

(2) Any person who contravenes the requirements of a county council under this section shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50 and to a daily fine not exceeding £10.'.—[Mr. Wigglesworth]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The proposal contained in the clause seeks to provide county councils with powers to require occupiers of premises used for the manufacture or the storage of hazardous substances to display signs on buildings indicating the nature of the substances manufactured or stored within them.

The clause is based on Section 16 of the Teesside Corporation (General Powers) Act 1971, which now applies only to that part of the county which formerly comprised the County Borough of Teesside. The Cleveland County Council would find such a provision as this of great benefit throughout the whole of the county and has suggested to me that other county councils would also benefit by the inclusion of this clause. That is why I have tabled the clause.

There are a number of precedents in local authority Acts for the form of Section 16 of the Teesside Act of 1971. This would seem to support the need for the proposed clause in the interests of public safety.

The House may wonder why the Cleveland County Council and the Teesside area has a particular interest in the question of hazardous substances in premises of this nature. Anybody who knows the Cleveland county area will probably know the reason. At present the area has the largest petrochemical complex in the whole country. Indeed, it will shortly be the largest petrochemical complex in the whole of Europe, and probably in the whole of the Western world. One-third of the North Sea oil will be coming in to Teesside. Firms such as ICI Monsanto, Rohmand Hass and various other chemical firms are expanding rapidly in the area in a way which makes the mind boggle. In addition, we have the development in the area of what by the early 1980s will be the biggest steel complex in Western Europe.

This combination of heavy industry in the area, especially that section of it concerned with petrochemicals, makes it very sensitive about hazardous substances and the danger to the public that they bring. It is for that reason that I and those of my leagues who represent constituencies in the area have taken a great interest in the scheme which has been proposed and carried through by the Cleveland County Council for the marking of vehicles transporting dangerous substances by road and rail from the area of Cleveland. The Hazardous Chemicals Scheme, known as Hazchem, has been introduced on a voluntary basis throughout the whole of the United Kingdom and has been in operation since July of last year.

Hon. Members may have noticed the labels stuck on the sides of tankers and other vehicles transporting hazardous substances on our roads. They are increasing in number. Shortly, we shall see them on virtually all tankers carrying hazardous substances throughout the United Kingdom.

The information which the labels give is vital to the emergency services in the event of an accident. When the fire service arrives at the scene of an accident where a tanker containing acid has overturned on a motorway, or where a similar accident has occurred with some toxic substance, it can be seen immediately how to handle it. A simple label of the sort that Hazchem Scheme lays down means that the fire brigade knows whether to treat the substance with water or with foam, for examp1e. It knows whether special clothing is required to keep out fumes or to keep the substance off the skin.

It is proposed that the sort of labels used in the Hazchem Scheme should also be placed upon buildings, as they are already in most parts of the Teesside area. In the event of a fire or some similar hazard in a building containing dangerous substances, the emergency services can then know how to treat it and, by being able to do so quickly and in the right way, they can avoid further danger to themselves and to the public as a result of treating the substance wrongly.

I hope that the House will support this proposal and that the Government will look upon it sympathetically. Clearly, it would be of great advantage to the fire and other emergency services and to the public at large. I commend it to the House as a further step towards ensuring public safety.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Guy Barnett

It must be said at the outset that the Government have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's clause. For one thing, it is nice to come across a clause which falls within the Long Title of the Bill because, as my hon. Friend made clear, the clause is modelled on local legislation already in existence.

My hon. Friend referred to his own area of Teesside. Perhaps I might mention my own. The extension of the type of marking to fixed installations has been advocated by a number of fire authorities and principally by the Greater London Council, which was given similar powers in its 1975 General Powers Act. So, although it is correct for my hon. Friend to say that the clause has a special relevance in his own area, it also has relevance elsewhere. It is for that reason that the Government look upon it with every possible sympathy.

However, it is important to point out that there are one or two difficulties. The first of them concerns the marking of chemical stores in industrial circumstances where mixed goods are stored and in places such as hospitals and university laboratories. Secondly, the markings must be compatible with existing legislation.

The clause is intended, among other things, to improve the safety of firemen who are called to attend fires at premises where chemicals are stored. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that any measure by which it is proposed to improve the safety of firemen must be looked at very carefully and, if there are difficulties, as there are in the marking of stores containing hazardous substances, efforts must be made to overcome them.

Difficulties may arise when more than one chemical compound is stored in the same building, as is often the case at chemical suppliers' premises, in the chemical stores of smaller manufacturing companies or in laboratories of hospitals or places of education.

As my hon. Friend will know, this is properly a matter for the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. They have a responsibility for the safety of all persons at work, including firemen. They are sympathetic to the purpose of the clause but, in the time available, have found it impossible to determine whether it would be a satisfactory means of dealing with the wide range of technical problems thrown up by fires involving chemicals and the wide range of places where they are stored. They will continue to examine the clause to see whether a satisfactory measure can be introduced at a late stage. In the meantime, it would be unwise to rush into unknown territory by accepting the clause as it stands.

The experience in my hon. Friend's area and in my own apart, there are large areas in the country in other industries where the experience is very limited. There are difficulties, and further study must be done. But I hope that as soon as possible something will be done to satisfy my hon. Friend. On that basis, I hope that he will appreciate that it is not possible for me to accept his new clause.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

I am very sorry that my hon. Friend cannot accept the new clause. I appreciate the problems of mixed goods in different premises. There is a similar problem with mixed goods on vehicles travelling on our roads. However, we have been able to develop a scheme which the fire services in my hon. Friend's area and in my own in Cleveland believe to be of assistance to them and to be helpful in providing further protection for the public against the danger from hazardous substances both on our roads and railways and in buildings.

On that basis, it was my hope that the experience we have from Cleveland and from London would have prompted the Government to accept this proposal and to make the provision available for councils to use. After all, it is only allowing councils to use this provision if they wish to do so. It is not mandating them to use it. It is providing powers for county councils to do so if they wish after consultation with their emergency services.

I accept that the Health and Safety Commission possibly has not had time to look at this as a national scheme. However, what is proposed is the opportunity for county councils to introduce schemes of this kind, if that is their wish. However, I note that my hon. Friend is sympathetic to the objectives of the clause. I hope that the Government will give further consideration to it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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