HC Deb 22 January 1980 vol 977 cc206-11
Miss Richardson (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is aware of the explosions which occurred on Thames View Estate, Barking, last night, causing the evacuation of the whole estate, and whether he will make a statement.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

At about 8.20 pm yesterday, a fire was reported at Womersley Boome Chemicals Ltd., River Road, Barking. The company, which employs about 15 persons, stores, breaks down from bulk and distributes a range of chemicals. There were included on the premises last night about 2 tons of sodium chlorate and lesser amounts of sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide, as well as varying quantities of flammable liquids and other chemicals.

The fire brigade arrived at approximately 8.30 pm, and while it was fighting the fire two small explosions occurred, after which the firemen withdrew to assess the situation.

There then followed a larger explosion in an area where the sodium chlorate was stored. This explosion caused severe structural damage to the single storey building. No damage was caused to any buildings outside the factory perimeter.

The chief scientific officer of the chemical incident unit of the London Fire Brigade, believing that there was a risk of poisonous fumes from the involvement of other chemicals, advised that there should be an evacuation of the population for at least 1 mile downwind, as a result of which some 6,000 persons were evacuated.

There is no present evidence that poisonous gas clouds resulted from the involvement of the chemicals, although large quantities of dark smoke were given off from the combustion of the plastic packaging. In the event, we have had no reports of injuries to members of the public. I understand that several members of the fire brigade, unfortunately, received minor injuries as a result of the explosions.

A factory inspector paid routine visits to the premises in February and March of last year, and, although nothing of serious concern was noted, the firm was given advice about the storage of highly flammable liquids and on the segregation of chemicals.

Factory inspectors began their investigation late last night, and this is continuing. Preliminary indications so far are that the fire began in the locker room. As soon as the investigation by the Health and Safety Executive has been completed, the findings and any recommendations will be made public.

Miss Richardson

I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to pay tribute to the London borough of Barking and to the police, who carried out a most fantastic evacuation operation last night—it is no mean task to move 6,000 people—and to voluntary workers and council workers who turned up, unasked, to help with tea, food and so on. I think that they should be thanked, as well as the London Fire Brigade. We are very sorry that some firemen were injured. I should particularly like to thank my constituents for the fortitude and humour with which they withstood this almost war-time experience. When I was there at 7.30 this morning, they were either back at work or on their way to work.

The fact that my constituents bore this incident with such fortitude does not mean that they will forget it very easily. They were seriously alarmed, and remain seriously alarmed. They feel, as I do, that there should be a public inquiry into the way in which the incident started.

Furthermore, since the Health and Safety Executive has as its remit the duty of looking at the siting of factories that store or manufacture noxious materials, should it not be reminded that far too many factories are sited in places that are much too near to heavily populated residential areas? We ought to be looking at planning policy on this basis. I hope that the Minister will deal with this aspect when he replies.

Mr. Mayhew

All concerned will be most grateful for the very well deserved tributes to the fire brigade, to the police and to the voluntary workers who carried out the evacuation, apparently with the greatest efficiency, and also the hon. Lady's constituents. I do not doubt that they will be gratified by the tribute that she has paid to them for their bearing.

With regard to having a public inquiry into how the fire started, I have told the House that the Health and Safety Executive has already embarked upon an inquiry into just that question, and that its findings and any recommendations that are made as a result of it will be made public. I think that at the moment, at any rate, that is the right course to adopt.

I have asked when the factory was put up and when it was brought into this use. I understand that it was put up in 1934, and that the housing estates in its neighbourhood were put up at some time after the war.

Questions of proximity of dangerous undertakings to houses are very much within the remit of the Health and Safety Commission. No doubt it will be one of the matters to which it will have regard when carrying out the investigation that I have mentioned.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is my hon. and learned Friend not aware that this serious incident has implications for all communities who have to live alongside hazardous industry using and storing dangerous and toxic material? Does he appreciate that however efficiently evacuation was carried out at Barking, where it took nearly three hours to evacuate 6,000 residents, in a place such as Canvey, an island with limited access to the mainland, where a much more serious incident might be expected, the position would be impossible? My people have to live alongside the greatest concentration of risk in the country. Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that there are still serious gaps in the regulations governing hazardous industry?

Is it not high time that Parliament had the opportunity to discuss this matter of importance to so many constituencies?

Mr. Mayhew

My hon. Friend has had discussions with my right hon. Friend and with myself on the issues that he raises with such dedication for Canvey Island, in his constituency. I do not think that we can say as yet that last night's incident has any new implication for Canvey Island, but we must wait and see what emerges. As my hon. Friend knows, those who advise him about his constituency interest are in the course of further consultations with those who have technically advised my right hon. Friend The Secretary of State. We must wait to see the results that emerge from that. I do not accept that there are proven gaps in the relevant regulations. As my hon. Friend knows, the Health and Safety Executive carried out a two-year inquiry into Canvey Island and it reported in 1978.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) and point out that the whole of East London is riddled with such factories. Is the Minister aware that I have made representations to his Ministry with no success concerning the conveyance of irradiated nuclear fuels through that area? We were told by his experts that such things could not happen. However, if tanks of dangerous nuclear fuels were affected, could he be sure that the whole of East London would not suffer? Will the Minister arrange to take the fuel away and send it to the Home Secretary's constituency? He does not want it; he stopped it going through there. The Minister should stop fuel going through the East End of London because one day there will be an accident and the Minister will be held responsible.

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman knows that any Government must be advised by the Health and Safety Commission that was set up by Parliament with all-party support for this very purpose. Such matters are better left to the expert advice that is available to the commission and to the inquiries and deliberations that it carries out.

Mr. McCrindle

Did the weather conditions, and particularly the high winds, have any effect on the distribution of the potentially dangerous cloud of gas?

Mr. Mayhew

As I have indicated, there was no evidence of any cloud of poisoned gas. There was a great deal of black smoke, which was carried downwind in an easterly direction.

Mr. Spearing

As there are many similar works adjacent to housing areas throughout East London, including many in Newham, does the Minister accept that this incident focuses attention on fire precautions inside those works? Will he tell us whether the works affected came within the terms of reference of the advisory committee on major hazards which is part of the Health and Safety Commission and which reported recently? If the works do not fall within those terms, will he consider the implications of that?

Mr. Mayhew

Obviously, all hon. Members with constituency interests arising from the presence of potentially dangerous installations will be alerted by such an incident. Apparently, only considerable amounts of black smoke were given off, but the incident highlights the importance of fire prevention regulations. I shall look into the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Well beloved

Does the Minister accept that such a serious incident will greatly increase the apprehension felt in Thameside constituencies such as that of Erith and Crayford? Will he arrange for the Health and Safety Commission to carry out an urgent review of chemical plants now operating in the Erith and Crayford area, as they have been a source of concern to the authorities and especially to local residents who live close to those plants?

Mr. Mayhew

Much more would need to be known about the causes of last night's incident to warrant special action by the Health and Safety Commission concerning installations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He must wait and see what emerges from the investigation. At the moment, the Government have no indication that any special connotations arise for Thameside areas from last night's accident.

Mr. Speaker

Although this is an extension of Question Time, I propose to call the two hon. Members who have been standing and the Front Bench to conclude.

Mr. Alton

Although my colleagues and I add our sympathies and tributes to those already expressed by the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson), I must ask the Minister whether the fire brigade was aware before last night's incident that the chemicals stored on the site were prone to react violently when treated with water.

Mr. Mayhew

The nature of the chemicals that are customarily stored there was known to the factory inspectorate. I do not know whether their nature was immediately known by the fire brigade, but I shall make inquiries.

Mr. McNally

The Minister has told us to wait and see. There was a similar large fire in central Stockport. Surely the geographic significance of these incidents is of such concern to individual Members that we cannot continue to wait and see until there is a major disaster. Will he assure us that he will personally look into the questions of the safety of industrial chemicals and oils in central urban areas? Will he make a positive statement to the House that will rectify the situation?

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman knows that there are regulations relating to the storage of flammable liquids. He has also heard that the premises involved were inspected during a routine inspection by a factory inspector in February and March last year. There is no evidence that further regulations are needed, but that question will be looked at again in the light of the inquiry's findings.

Mr. John Grant

I associate the Opposition with the tributes paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) to the police and public. We particularly regret the injuries sustained by the firemen. The Minister stated that factory inspectors have visited the works twice recently. Can he tell us whether their advice was accepted and what checks were made to ensure that it was? As the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, it may be difficult for the hon. and learned Gentleman to answer, but can he confirm that there were reports of looting? If looting took place, it would be particularly deplorable.

Mr. Mayhew

There was a relatively minor matter relating to the labelling of certain containers and advice was given about the distance from the perimeter fence at which chemicals should be stored. I am not aware whether that was checked and subsequently monitored.

I have read the report about looting referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but I have no knowledge of it and it does not fall within the responsibilities of my Department. I was glad to see a disclaimer was subsequently issued in a later edition of the evening newspaper that suggested that it was an isolated incident.