HC Deb 27 March 1979 vol 965 cc417-30

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

11.12 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Last June, the Health and Safety Executive published a report which confirmed that 33,000 of my constituents on Canvey Island were facing unacceptable risks from a massive concentration of hazardous gas, oil and chemical storage close to their homes. One-third of the total volume of hazard stemmed from a single installation in the British Gas methane terminal.

Unfortunately, the report did not investigate all the hazards with the thoroughness we have the right to expect in this day and age. It dealt far too lightly with the real dangers posed by the movement of ships carrying hazardous cargoes in the Thames estuary, some of them unpiloted, and the ever-present risk of collisions with large liquefied gas carriers. It suppressed an appendix on the possibilities and consequences of an un-confined methane gas cloud explosion. It totally ignored the human factor of how people living on a small island with only one escape route would react in the event of a catastrophic disaster and what would happen if they tried to get off the island when the rescue services were trying to get on. Its conclusions were feeble in the extreme. No recommendation was made for the removal of any of the main hazards. On the contrary, after making suggestions for reducing particular risks, the ludicrous conclusion was reached that additional hazards in the form of two oil refineries could be safely introduced.

Since the publication of that disappointing document, the situation has worsened dramatically. On 8th January, the 60,000-ton French tanker "Betelgeuse" blew up at an offshore jetty at the Gulf oil terminal in Bantry Bay, with complete loss of life. This tragedy was a sharp reminder that a similar happening at Canvey, where oil and gas tankers dock much closer to land-based petrochemical installations, would have caused a holocaust. For full measure, nine days later the IRA chose to underline the point by blowing up an oil storage tank on the island. It was empty. We had had the narrowest of escapes.

Apart from closing a liquefied petroleum gas pipeline, which I suggested to the British Gas Corporation shortly before the Health and Safety Executive report was published, nothing has happened in the past nine months to reduce anxieties.

The public were momentarily deceived into thinking that action was being taken, because in a Thames Television programme on 21 December an Executive spokesman assured viewers that 12,000 tons of liquefied petroleum gas stored close to people's homes had been reduced to 3,000 tons. That statement was untrue. No such reduction had taken place. Nor had it taken place up to a month ago. So much for the Executive's capacity to act as the public's watchdog on safety or even to monitor what is going on in hazardous installations.

Surely, following the Bantry Bay disaster and the IRA bomb the Executive should have indicated a readiness to reconsider its earlier conclusions, which had totally failed to take into account the possibility of sabotage triggering off the worst peacetime disaster of all time, but that was not so.

In one respect, however, the Executive stirred itself. Five months after the publication of the report it felt obliged to give some advice about one of the main hazards it had identified. It recommended to the local authority, the Castle Point district council, that no new planning permission should be granted within an area of 1 km from the methane terminal. That effectively served notice on 8,000 people and the parents of children at four schools that they lived in a danger area.

The local authority and I reacted immediately. We jointly pressed the Government to consider the full implications of that advice both on the morale of the people involved and the financial burden that compensation claims would put on the ratepayers. We said that if the dangers envisaged warranted advice of that sort, the best course would be to remove the hazard altogether. Over three months later we are still awaiting an answer.

It transpires, however, that the advice from the Executive was unsound. On 22 January I asked the Under-Secretary of State If in the light of the known hazard posed by the terminal … and the risk of spillages of liquefied gas leading to the release of a gas cloud, he will set out the scientific justification for the Health and Safety Executive to recommend … the establishment of a cordon sanitaire around the installation limited to only 1 kilometre. The hon. Gentleman's reply was astonishing. No doubt it was drafted by the Executive. It volunteered the information that Experience shows that the worst effects of a flammable gas cloud explosion would be unlikely to extend beyond a radius of 1 kilometre."—[Official Report, 22 January 1979; Vol. 961, cc. 37–38.] The House will appreciate that the worst effects of that sort of disaster are death and destruction by fire on a catastrophic scale.

Leaving aside the chilling effect that the hon. Gentleman's reply had on 8,000 people living in the danger zone and many thousands more just outside it, there is no scientific basis for the Executive's advice. Available knowledge indicates that a gas cloud arising from a major spillage of liquefied gas could travel up to 8 km before ignition. The worst effects of any such explosion might therefore be felt well beyond the 1 km radius and in the heavily populated area beyond Canvey on the Essex mainland.

It has been clear to me for some time that Ministers do not understand the complexity, the scale and the urgency of the Canvey situation. One reason may be the quality of the advice that the Executive is giving them. The scientists whom I have consulted are experts on fire and explosions and they are highly critical of the Canvey report. The House should know that. That is why I felt it necessary last month to ask the Prime Minister to intervene. It is much to the right hon. Gentleman's credit that he has called for a full investigation and has ordered the departmental Ministers concerned to report direct to him. At least he appears to understand and to take the matter seriously.

I find it particularly alarming that the HSE seems totally unaware of what is going on in other countries, where liquefied energy gases are being used on an ever-increasing scale—in the United States, in continental Europe and Japan. I am being charitable here because if it is aware of what is going on elsewhere it is behaving with far too much timidity. The sooner that Parliament wakes up to that fact, the better for the health and safety of endangered communities in this country.

In the United States, legislative controls are being imposed to ensure that any new liquefied gas terminal is built remote from population. For example, the criterion in California is that within one mile from any new terminal the population density should not be greater than 10 persons per square mile and within four miles not greater than 60 persons per square mile. In Holland, the new liquefied gas terminal at Eemshaven will be 4.3 miles from the nearest residences.

All this must have been known to the HSE at the time of its investigation on Canvey. It was certainly aware of the dangers. In its report it conceded that if there were a major spillage of liquefied gas, leading to the explosion of a vapour cloud, it could have serious consequences, including death, but it could suggest no amelioration. Yet, knowing this, it still refused to recommend the removal of the hazard. Its proposals for a limited cordon sanitaire are therefore irresponsible.

Worse than that, there appears to be no consistency whatsoever in the advice it is giving to authorities elsewhere which are faced with planning applications for the storage of liquefied gases.

For example, the HSE announced on 14 February that it had advised the Glanford borough council not to grant planning permission to Nipro UK to install three LPG storage tanks with a total capacity of 1,200 tons at its Flixborough plant. The reason was that the site was within 1 km of the villages of Amcotts and Flixborough. It was stated that the probability of an accidental major release of butane from the storage facilities—for example, from a fractured process feedpipe—or the catastrophic failure of one of the storage tanks, although not remote, could not be entirely discounted. Yet almost simultaneously a few miles away in the same district, next door in Cleethorpes, the HSE said that it had no objection, on the grounds of safety, to the storage of five times the quantity of similar gases close to other hazards. The chief executive of Glanford complained of the delay in getting information from the Executive, of vagueness when it was provided, and of its inconsistency.

It is significant that at Canvey we have in store, on one site alone, 10 times the quantity of LPG as that proposed at Flixborough, within a similar distance of a very much larger population. Not only has the HSE declined to recommend the closing down of this dangerous concentration; it cannot even acquaint itself correctly with the exact quantities involved.

An equally bewildering situation has arisen in Scotland over the proposed gas terminal at Braefoot Bay, in the Firth of Forth. Here upwards of 6,000 people live within 1–2 km of what is planned to be the largest liquefied gas terminal in Europe. Following a public inquiry held in July 1977, at which the inspector found that the risk of a major accident was in the region of one chance in 1 million a year, the Secretary of State for Scotland, by indicating that he was minded to approve the proposal, was saying, in effect, that this level of risk was acceptable.

Almost four months after the publication of the Canvey report I am told that the HSE indicated to the Secretary of State that it had not been demonstrated to the Executive what the level of risk would be. Encouraged by this, the residents asked the HSE what level of risk would, in its view, be acceptable. It took the HSE three months to reply. It said that it was not committed to a quantified level of risk as a basis of judgment as to what would be acceptable. In short, the whole project could go ahead. The Executive would decide on the basis of trial and error what was and what was not acceptable after the die was cast. The people of the area are thus to be put deliberately in the same situation as the people of Canvey.

In the light of what we now know about these matters, I was not surprised to hear from a local resident that in his view this was nothing short of criminal folly.

We may contrast that with the very clear legislative criteria in the United States and Holland about liquefied gas installations, and the necessity to keep these well away from populated areas and to insist on the strictest discipline in the movement of gas carriers in busy shipping lanes.

In my constituency the HSE has lost all credibility. It is in danger of doing so elsewhere. The distinct impression has been given that it is susceptible to commercial and political pressures and that it lacks courage and the expertise to ensure that its advice, when given, can stand up to analysis. Increasingly I find that scientists who are expert in gases, fires and explosions are critical of its decisions.

Perhaps Parliament is at fault for not giving the HSE more independence and ensuring that it has the resources to command the best scientific expertise. What is certain is that the present situation simply cannot continue. The plight of Canvey is a national scandal and, as matters have been allowed to drift, other endangered communities may find themselves in the same position.

I trust that the Under-Secretary of State will not defend the indefensible but will seize the opportunity to indicate that the Government are concerned about the matters that I have described and are determined to do something about them.

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. Has the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) arranged with the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) to take part in the debate?

Sir B. Braine

I had hoped that the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) would succeed in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I have mentioned his constituency.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) for allowing me a little time to take part in this debate, because he mentioned my constituency.

I realise that the situation on Canvey is very serious, but there is an additional point of which my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State should take note. We are in an unfortunate area now, because there appears to be a clash between the Health and Safety Executive and local planning authorities in these matters.

When the Glanford borough council considered the Flixborough application, it wrote to the Health and Safety Executive. By statute, it is obliged to consider such applications within a certain time. On the other hand, again by statute, it is required to take into account all matters germane to the proposal. In the end, the council considered that planning matter without the advice of the Health and Safety Executive before it. I think that if someone were to take legal action and claim that the council was in default of its statutory duty because the relevant information was not before it, the council would have a case to answer. But that matter has not been tested in law.

The local planning authority is required by statute to deal with applications within a certain time. I should have preferred it to kick the whole matter into touch, on the ground that negotiations with the Gas Corporation for the supply of natural gas by pipeline were still continuing. Indeed, in the event, it was able to conclude those negotiations successfully.

However, planning permission was granted on any conditions that the Health and Safety Executive might wish to impose. The Executive, when asked about the conditions, retorted that, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was an unsuitable venue anyway.

The clerk to the Glanford borough council, in his letter to me of 21 March, said: This leaves me wondering whether the effect of the planning permission granted to Nypro subject to the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive amounts to an unconditional planning permission: the reason for this view (which I hope is wrong), is that it would be rather difficult to prove non-compliance with non-existent requirements. Equally, if the view of the Executive is correct, there would appear to be extremely little point in the borough council worrying about conditions relating to health and safety: it would appear that they can grant planning permission in any area where, on planning grounds, it would appear suitable, leaving the question of health and safety entirely in the hands of the Executive. I am by no means sure that this is a correct view or that it is at all desirable that local authorities with responsibilities to their people should find themselves usurped by the Executive. Further, this could leave the Executive as the only possible target to shoot at in the event of any disaster. I wonder if that is precisely what they want. In other words, we have two bodies: the Health and Safety Executive, which, under the Act, has certain powers to prescribe the building, the shipment or anything else on the ground of that legislation, and the borough council, with overall responsibility. It may think that it is an unsightly plant. The conditions of health and safety are within its ambit as well. But a local authority may not have the requisite expertise to deal with a sophisticated plant.

Therefore, I think that the Minister should consult his right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments and clear up this situation. It is plainly unsatisfactory as it is, and it is undesirable that local planning authorities should reach decisions without having appropriate advice from the Health and Safety Executive before them. In fact, they may not be complying with the statutory requirements if they do.

Will it help if we give the Health and Safety Executive more staff? That might help, but where there are major hazards it may take many months to consider all the implications. We shall have to have a change here.

I should not like to see the local authorities ruled out of any part of the decision-making on safety or health matters, but I should like the backing-up, essential expertise of the Executive, which can concentrate the sum of the available knowledge, brought into play as well.

We must not get into a situation such as we got into in Glanford, where a planning decision was made, the Executive had powers, and now nobody is in the position of knowing whether that planning consent is open-ended.

11.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Grant)

I fully understand the concern of the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) in these matters. He should not have suggested that Ministers are not equally concerned, because that is not so. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I had used some chilling words in a parliamentary answer. It is a bit rich for him to accuse me of using chilling words. It is not something that I have set out to do. My ministerial colleagues and I are very concerned, as the hon. Gentleman is, to try to ensure that the public are not put at risk from industry's arrangements, particularly in the matter of the storing of liquefied gases.

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the liquefaction of gases for storage purposes is now widespread, because it enables a large volume of gas to be stored in a comparatively small space. This is particularly so with what are commonly called the liquefied energy gases—liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas. There are, of course, other gases that are stored in liquid form, but I shall confine my remarks mainly to LNG and LPG, since it is clear that the hon. Gentleman is most concerned about the possible effects of an explosion involving these materials.

The usefulness of these gases as a clean and convenient fuel has led to their increasing use in recent years. In short, they have become part of our everyday way of life. It is worth emphasising this, because we are dealing here not with a novel form of fuel but with substances which are well known and have been in use for a considerable time on a large scale.

There are two principal hazards involved in all this. Either gas may leak from the storage vessel and ignite, or the storage vessel itself may be affected by fire, with the result that the storage vessels explode. Fires due to leakage of plant would almost certainly be confined to the installation itself and would not affect members of the public. The public would become involved only if there were a sudden catastrophic rupture of the gas storage vessel, a rupture of the kind that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

History has shown failures of that kind to be of low probability. In fact, there has been no such incident to date in the United Kingdom. I do not say this to sound complacent—indeed, it would be wrong to do so—but it seems fair to suggest that this is due in part at least to the stringent precautions which industry has already adopted in the storage and handling of these gases.

These precautions are well known and have been the subject of much detailed guidance, some of it published by the Health and Safety Executive. Considerable efforts have been made over the years by the Factory Inspectorate and other enforcing and licensing authorities to secure compliance with these precautions, and events have shown that where they are put into practice the possibility of fires and explosions which put the public at risk are remote.

Having said that, I am well aware of what the hon. Gentleman said—that we must maintain vigilance and that safety precautions must be enhanced. He drew attention to the Bantry Bay explosion and the explosion caused by the IRA. The Health and Safety Executive will be studying any information which comes to light following investigation of the Bantry Bay explosion and the road tanker explosion at San Carlos in Spain, so that we can learn any lessons and apply them in the United Kingdom.

I turn straight away to some of the hon. Gentleman's specific criticisms concerning the HSE's approach to questions relating to the siting of storage installations and the protection of the public at large. He referred to the advice given by the HSE in the case of the existing large-scale storage installation on Canvey and contrasted this with the attitude towards the proposed new installations at Flixborough and other sites.

It is important—this is relevant to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis)—to recognise that the HSE's role in planning matters is an advisory one. Policy on planning and industrial development is a matter for my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Scotland, and questions relating to the siting of all industrial developments, including potentially hazardous installations, and to residential developments near to these installations, are matters for local planning authorities to determine. Arrangements have existed for some time under which a local planning authority can ask the HSE for an appraisal of risk at sites such as those where large-scale storage of liquefied flammable gases is carried out. These appraisals take account not only of the nature of the installation itself but of any special problems involving the community in the vicinity.

It is for the planning authority to determine, in the light of the HSE's appraisals and advice on the health and safety implications of proposed developments, whether to give approval for such developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe raised the matter of delays with me in the House this afternoon. I recognise that there is a problem here. As I said to him in the House at Question Time, this is a matter which I must pursue with the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The HSE's function is to ensure that all industrial plants, whether newly established or not, comply with their duties under health and safety legislation and that the managements concerned have full regard for the health and safety not only of their workers but of the public who may be affected by their activities. The HSE and other enforcing authorities have powers to impose improvement and prohibition notices to secure appropriate standards of health and safety, but such notices would naturally be issued only in respect of existing activities or activities which are about to begin and not when things are only at the planning stage.

I ask the hon. Member for Essex, South-East to accept that it is impossible to lay down hard and fast rules in the matter of the siting of storage facilities and the separation distances between storage installations and other plants and residential areas in the vicinity. Each case must be considered individually in the light of all the circumstances. With existing installation, as distinct from proposed new developments, the question is whether the firm is doing everything reasonably practicable to comply with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

The hon. Gentleman knows that in comparing the situation at Canvey with the situation in relation to proposed developments at Flixborough and other sites he is not comparing like with like. The HSE, has the support of the advisory committee on major hazards in its view that hard and fast rules on the siting of major installations cannot be laid down. However, that should not be taken to mean that the HSE is not trying to pursue a consistent approach in giving advice on these very complex matters to planning authorities and in determining what action to take in respect of existing installations.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the United States situation. The general line adopted in the report on liquid natural gas terminals by the general accounting office in the United States was that all new large liquefied energy gas storage facilities should be built in remote areas and that no existing large storage facilities in other than remote areas should be expanded in size or in use. These recommendations for remote siting refer only to new storage facilities. The report still acknowledged that it might not be possible to stick to this policy even with regard to new installations, because it went on to make recommendations that plants which could not be sited in remote areas should be built to a very high level of construction. Moreover, the report, in respect of existing plant, commented as follows: We recommend that the Secretary of Energy evaluate each existing large LEG storage facility and recommend to the President and the Congress the actions necessary to protect the public from the hazards associated with them. A detailed assessment of that kind was carried out in respect of all the major installations on Canvey Island.

I come to the particular comments of the hon. Member for Essex, South-East on the Canvey report. As he is aware, Ministers are, at the request of the Prime Minister, re-examining the situation at Canvey, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it would be wrong for me to anticipate the conclusions that they may reach. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all the parties concerned are actively pursuing the implementation of the recommendations in the report on safety at Canvey Island to try to ensure that the margin of safety at the plants involved is substantially increased.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making a statement on our re-examination of the situation. In the meantime, I want to deal with the hon. Gentleman's reference to the incorrect statement by a Health and Safety Executive official on television about the amount of LPG stored at the methane terminal. I understand that the official concerned has already written to the hon. Gentleman apologising for what was a genuine mistake, which was entirely due to a misunderstanding on the official's part.

I understand that the position now is that nearly 6,000 tons of LPG has already been removed from the site, and it is now expected that the amount stored on site will be further reduced to about 3,000 tons by mid-April.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am very pleased to hear that a statement is likely to be made shortly. Can the hon. Gentleman say when?

Mr. Grant

No, I cannot. The hon. Gentleman will have to bear with us a little longer. It is certainly not expected to take very much longer. Ministers have given the matter some consideration already, but we have not reached final conclusions.

I very much hope that what I have said will at any rate help to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Health and Safety Commission and the Executive—and certainly Ministers and everybody concerned—are paying attention to the problems that he has raised. It is fair to say that there has been more action in this area, despite the shortcomings that the hon. Gentleman feels exist, under this Government in recent years than ever before. I certainly do not defend, as the hon. Gentleman put it, the indefensible, but I think that his criticisms have been too harsh and too extreme, paticularly of the HSE.

I think that we are all at one in our desire to see the highest possible standard of safety achieved and maintained, and while we must not be complacent about the dangers of installations of this kind, the general picture is not one which ought to result in fear and worry by the general public.

The Health and Safety Commission is proposing major legislative changes with regard to inflammable gases. In the meantime, the Health and Safety Executive will continue to use its existing power and techniques to ensure that the highest possible standard of safety—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.