§ 15. Mr. Eastham
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received regarding the environmental implications of the use, storage and disposal in the United Kingdom of the chemical methyl isocyanate; and if he will make a statement.
§ Mr. Gow
Since the tragedy in Bhopal on 3 December my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a small number of representations about the use, storage and disposal of the chemical methyl isocyanate. That chemical is not manufactured in the United Kingdom. It is used and stored by Ciba-Geigy at its factory near Grimsby, where a maximum of eight tonnes is stored in 40 drums containing 45 gallons each. I understand that in the Bhopal disaster 45 tonnes were stored in a single container. Very small quantities of the chemical are stored for research purposes at four other places in the United Kingdom. In all cases, storage is subject to strict control by the Health and Safety Executive. That chemical is included in schedule 3 to the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984, which came into force yesterday. Before and after the Bhopal disaster, officers of the Health and Safety Executive inspected the 779 factory at Ciba-Geigy and are satisfied as to the safety of the operation. I am advised that the disposal of that chemical is not considered to be a significant problem.
§ Mr. Eastham
I thank the Minister for his statement. He referred to storage, but is it not a fact that nowadays there are grave misgivings about drivers not complying with regulations, which also applies to private haulier contractors who have been contracted to pick up that material? Is it not about time that we had legislation whereby environmental health officers had some control, not only over factories and chemical works in towns and cities, but over the routes taken by those vehicles?
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
Will my hon. Friend undertake a wider inquiry and review of the relevant planning law and practice to ensure that when there are applications for the manufacture and storage of toxic materials the safety of the local community is fully ensured?
§ Mr. Gow
I give my hon. Friend that undertaking. Following the amendments made last year to the general development and use classes orders and the publication of advice on planning control over hazardous development, we have consulted on proposals for strengthening those regulations and controls, and legislation will be introduced as soon as possible.
§ Dr. Cunningham
Although no one wants to be alarmist, does the Minister accept that his statement is bound to cause some anxiety, not least because chemicals such as methyl isocyanate and others, which are extremely 780 toxic and dangerous, are stored in urban locations—as he said but did not name — and problems can arise, particularly at the point of change from storage to transport? Is the Minister satisfied that he can expect the public to accept Government assurances in this kind of case when the Government have presided over a rundown of almost one third of their own target for the Factories Inspectorate, the people responsible for the monitoring, checking and supervision of these important matters?
§ Mr. Gow
There is no cause for public disquiet about this, because officers of the Health and Safety Executive visited the chemical plant near Grimsby before and after the tragedy at Bhopal. The officers of the Health and Safety Executive are satisfied that the operation at that factory is being carried out with full and proper regard to safety and strictly in accordance with the standards laid down.
§ Mr. Madden
Yes, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will be concerned that, of the 35 questions tabled for reply today, only 15 were answered, primarily, in my view, because of the long-winded, ponderous replies given by Ministers. In view of the considerable expense incurred by officials and others in preparing for Question Time, and given that low reply rate, do you agree that unless Environment Ministers speed matters up next time they are in danger of being seen as an uneconomic unit?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I cannot be responsible for the length of supplementary questions or the answers, but I have sympathy with what the hon. Member said. We should have got a little further than we did today at Question Time.