HC Deb 18 January 1979 vol 960 cc1988-94
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, I wish to make a statement. At 10.40 p.m. last night a bomb exploded at a Texaco oil terminal on Canvey Island, producing an 18-in diameter hole in a tank containing aviation fuel. The fuel escaped from the tank into a safety moat and did not catch fire. The Essex police had received no advance warning that a bomb had been planted.

At midnight a caller told the Press Association that the Provisional IRA had planted a bomb on Canvey Island and another bomb in the Blackwall tunnel, both of which were to explode at midnight. This message was passed immediately to the Essex police and the Metropolitan Police, but the explosion at Canvey Island had already taken place. The Metropolitan Police searched the Black-wall tunnel, and while they were doing so, at 12.40 a.m., a bomb exploded at a gasholder near the south exit of the tunnel, causing an explosion and fire. At 1.30 a.m. a second gasholder caught fire. By 3.15 a.m. both fires had been extinguished, and a secondary fire at 4.15 a.m. was quickly dealt with.

There were no injuries as a result of these explosions. In addition to the two bombs that exploded, a further explosive device was discovered yesterday lying partly covered at the side of the M6 in Leicestershire. Army bomb disposal experts were called and safely defused the device. The police are carrying out detailed investigations into all these incidents. The debris from the bomb that exploded and the unexploded device will be carefully examined for any evidence that may help the police to trace those responsible for these and the earlier incidents. It was fortunate that no one was killed or injured by these explosions, but their potential danger cannot be overstated. No estimate has yet been made of the damage caused to property.

I am sure that the House will join me in condemning these attacks and will support the Government in their determination not to be swayed by such methods. The vigilance of the public and co-operation with the police are of the utmost importance as the threat of further attacks remains high.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, whatever criticisms we may have made of his last statement, we well recognise the extra strains placed on him at this time when such a problem arises? On this statement we entirely support what he said. What has happened is clearly a new development and, like all new developments in this area, it requires careful security on all sides, careful action by the police and the fullest possible co-operation between the police and the public. Of course, I join the right hon. Gentleman in condemning such attacks. He and I have both had experi- ence of condemning such attacks over, alas, far too long a period.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He and I know that the police can operate only on information. Their success is not due to luck. They gain successes from little bits of information that may seem unimportant when they first come in. Fortunately, we have not been in the same position as the people of Northern Ireland, who know the importance of vigilance, but I hope that the people of this country will appreciate that it is important for them to cooperate with the police.

Dr. McDonald

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I share his concern about these incidents and that Thurrock, which is a neighbour of Canvey Island and which experienced great fear last night, suffers equally from the dangers of such an explosion, since there are two oil refineries, power stations and oil depots intermingled with housing in one part of the Thurrock constituency? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all possible support is given to the Essex police in their attempts to deal with further threats, and direct their attention to the dangers that exist in Thurrock as well as on Canvey Island?

Mr. Rees

It is quite proper for my hon. Friend to raise these matters, but the Essex police are fully aware of them and were involved in IRA matters earlier this week. It will be of interest to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) to know that I have checked with the Department of Energy and am told that it has warned all the oil and gas industries in the country to take special precautions against further attacks. Warnings have also gone out to other fuel industries to be especially on the alert. I emphasise that that is most important.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while, mercifully, the Canvey bomb did not kill anyone, this terrifying incident followed closely on the tanker explosion in Bantry Bay and that the tanker was similar to those that dock at Canvey and Thurrock almost every day? Is he further aware that at Flixborough, Aberfan and Bantry Bay disaster and death stemmed from a single neglected source, and that at Canvey Island there is a multiplicity of risks, each compounding the others and all close to a large residential population?

In view of the repeated warnings that I have given the Government on this issue, and on which we are still awaiting action, will the Home Secretary now heed my words and give three undertakings here and now? First, will he ensure that the appalling lack of security at all these installations, not just in Canvey but in Thurrock, is remedied forthwith?

Secondly, the Health and Safety Executive investigation into the safety of Canvey Island was incomplete, as the Executive has admitted, and gave no thought to sabotage. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the HSE is instructed to look at the problem again and to come up with realistic recommendations this time? Thirdly, will the Government give urgent consideration to removing as quickly as possible the gas methane terminal, which is the major hazard to my constituents?

Mr. Rees

The last two points are not my responsibility, and it would be better if I put them to my right hon. Friend who has a direct responsibility for those matters. It will reassure the House if I tell the hon. Gentleman that the HSE has sought information about the explosion at Bantry Bay in order to judge its relevance in the wider scene. On the security aspect of all the oil and gas installations in various parts of the country, it would be better not to talk about the problem in the full public gaze because, as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) knows, the more one talks publicly about these matters the more one gives ideas to certain people. However, I shall be happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine).

Mr. Edward Lyons

Is it not an interesting aspect of the explosion at Canvey Island that it took place one hour and 20 minutes before the telephone warning was given to the Press Association? Does that not expose the callous unconcern of the IRA for human life?

Mr. Rees

When one considers what has happened over the years, one finds that the words of my hon. and learned Friend are an understatement.

Mr. Powell

In these circumstances, if they are to continue, will the right hon. Gentleman be careful, as far as possible, to avoid, and to advise others to avoid, giving unnecessary publicity to claims and statements purporting to emanate from the Provisional IRA, since that publicity is the main object at which the terrorist aims?

Mr. Rees

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Publicity is what is required by the terrorists, and the more that their actions are given publicity—I understand why they are—the more they believe that they have been successful.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there is public anxiety about fire coverage on the lower reaches of the Thames? Will he agree to have urgent discussions with the Port of London Authority about this aspect, as it is causing considerable concern.

Mr. Rees

I shall do that in so far as it is my responsibility, and where it is not I shall see that it is pressed in the right quarter.

Mr. Hooson

Is the Home Secretary aware that Liberal Members appreciate the additional burden that is placed upon him and the police at this juncture when we have a number of industrial disputes taking place at the same time? We echo entirely his sentiments about the importance of public and police vigilance, but three bombs were planted without anyone being aware of them. Is it not necessary to use the media to draw attention to the sort and size of bombs that were planted and what the public should look out for? We are used to a peaceful regime in this country and, since we are not facing the same circumstances in Northern Ireland, it is sometimes difficult for people fully to appreciate what we need to look out for.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about the police. There is a danger in his suggestion that goes back to what was said by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). My experience—I am sure that it has been shared by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—is that when I used to return from Northern Ireland I was amazed by the laxity of security in this country. People in Northern Ireland are used to tight security. What matters is vigilance by people for anything the slightest bit unusual, rather than a detailed knowledge of what they should be looking for. I know from reading police reports that they knit together bits of information that seem almost useless when they are first received. When taken with other information, they add up to the final story. That is what good policing is all about. The police want information, and I am sure that people will be telephoning and contacting their local police station, and that in that way the police will find the people responsibly for planting the bombs.

Mr. Cartwright

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the gas plant at Greenwich occupies a large, exposed site, which has many consequent internal security problems? In view of the obvious risk to many thousands of homes in the area if such a site is to be a target for attacks, is my right hon. Friend sure that the gas industry can provide the security cover that is needed without a great deal of outside assistance?

Mr. Rees

The fuel industries receive a great deal of advice. It would be better if my hon. Friend and I spoke about how this advice should be given outside rather than in the House. The fuel industries do not like advice.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does the Home Secretary agree that we should congratulate not only the police but the fire services that had to deal with the initial consequences of the explosions? Will he repeat his advice to members of the public that they should not be frightened to pursue a wild goose chase by reporting information which they believe to be relevant or what might be a bomb? Is he aware that many people fear that they put an extra load on the police by reporting something that turns out to be unimportant?

Mr. Rees

People certainly should not fear that they are making fools of themselves by reporting something that turns out to be unimportant. Any piece of information matters. The fire service did a remarkable job overnight and showed the excellent work that it does.

Mr. Ward

Will my right hon. Friend include in his appreciation the stretched members of the emergency services who also had to deal with a major fire in the Strand and a large-scale evacuation of residents in Kennington? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the reasons for that evacuation?

Mr. Rees

The latest information that I have about the, fire in the Strand is that it does not involve the IRA. understand that there was a hoax at the Kennington Oval gasholder. I am glad to say that a man is helping the police with inquiries.