HC Deb 26 July 1985 vol 83 cc1416-22

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

9.36 am
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Mr. Speaker has commented on what happened 40 years ago today. I am privileged to be a Member of the House with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan). When he entered the House 40 years ago with the return of a Labour Government, there was massive work to be done. The troops came home and realised the mess that the nation was in. There were many problems to be sorted out.

My right hon. Friend is with us today. I pay tribute to the marvellous work that the Labour Government did during that difficult period. I do not doubt that my right hon. Friend will remember that day this morning. After checking wherever one can check these matters, I think that I am correct in saying that he is the only Prime Minister who has become Father of the House. He has been a true and faithful servant to all his constituents, the nation and the world.

Behind every great man there is usually a great woman. I refer to Audrey, my right hon. Friend's wife, who has done sterling work in the community. Without her, I do not think that my right hon. Friend could have achieved what he has.

I now sound a serious note. My constituency of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire contains a place called Selston. That is not a village or a town—it is something in between. Many people live in that fairly large area. On the evening of Saturday 13 July 1985, three youngsters—two 11-year-olds and a nine-year-old—climbed into an electrical substation on the housing estate. Apparently, youngsters do that fairly regularly. The children find cigarettes and matches and they go into the substation to pick off bits of the compound that is used for sealing the units. If the compound is running down the transformers, it means that there is a leakage of some sort, because the compound is on the inside and the units are sealed.

The units carry about 11,000 volts. I understand that for some years youngsters have put their hands into the transformers to get "tickled", as they call it. On 13 July, two 11-year-old boys went into the substation. One of them put his hand in and there was an explosion. That boy died the next day, suffering 85 per cent. burns over the whole of his body. The other boy, who went to the Nottingham city hospital burns unit, suffered 55 to 60 per cent. burns and died the following Wednesday in that unit. It was a terrible tragedy and I feel it my duty to bring it to the attention of the House.

There are, of course, regulations and there is an inspectorate. The authority is the East Midlands electricity board. I understand that the substations are examined fairly regularly, but when incidents of this sort happen it is obvious that something is gravely wrong.

There are 645 similar transformers in the county of Nottingham and nationwide there are over 11,000. Not long ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your own county of Sussex, a lad was killed doing the same thing, and the electricity board at that time promised to take action so that it could not happen again. But nothing has been done, the regulations have not been tightened up, and there have been two fatalities in my constituency.

It is disturbing to find that there is very easy access to many electrical substations. The electricity boards are making large profits and should be able to earmark funds for the purpose of safeguarding substations.

The wall around the substation where the tragedy occurred is 6ft high. There is no top on it. There are two doors at the front. The danger notice is on the front of the door. Around the outer perimeter of the 6ft wall is a small fence made with chicken wire. The youngsters were able to stand on the fence, climb over the wall and gain entry to the substation.

The Evening Post took photographs of one area in the city of Nottingham, Clifton, in which there are several substations. The photographs show clearly what is wrong with them. One of the substations is totally encased and there is no possible access to it unless the doors are open, but there is easy access to the others. As can be seen from the photographs, one is insecure—children can crawl under the fence. Another has a huge hole in the fence. In another there is graffiti on the substation walls, showing that someone has been in there.

The district manager of the East Midlands electricity board at Ilkeston, who is responsible for the area, says that the transformer and switchgear are contained in steel and are completely safe, but there is a pitch running down them, clearly showing that something is wrong. The board suggests that that is because people have tampered with the equipment. It is clear that the substations are not vandal-proof, and I should have thought that in 1985 it would be possible, with proper research, to make substations safe.

I understand that the district manager has also said that there are no laws with regard to fencing. Surely it is time that the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Department of Energy looked seriously at the situation.

I discussed the problem last night with my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). They assure me that they have similar problems with substations in their constituencies. If the problem exists in places as far apart as Nottinghamshire in the Midlands, Jarrow in the north-east, and Ogmore in south Wales, the Department and the CEGB have a considerable task to put the matter right.

In rural areas the substations are not cordoned off. We know what kids will do; we have all been kids ourselves. They get up to all sorts of things, but when I was young tragedies of this sort did not happen. I met the parents of the boys and they were in a terrible state of grief. Last Sunday afternoon, on the estate where they live, the field was packed and the parents made it clear to me that they wished me to go down to the House of Commons and do something about the problem. They are asking for all substations to be made safe, no matter what the cost. We cannot put a price on life and we all know that the money is available to overcome the problem.

We also want to know what the powers that be will do about the problem. I hope that the Minister can give me, the House, parents on that estate and parents nationwide an assurance that they will do something with a view to overcoming tragedies such as the one that we had on 13 July in Selston, Nottinghamshire. We want something done so that such a tragedy never happens again.

I remember, as I am sure does my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, a chap during the second world war. His name was General MacArthur. He often issued orders. He said, " I want action on this day." That is what I and my constituents are looking for.

I found that the city of Nottingham spends £10,000 a month maintaining and repairing the substations. Multiplied by 12, that amounts to £120,000 a year. The city council says that it spends that money just to stand still and that no progress is made because no sooner has it done the repairs than the position is back to where it was. That is throwing money away.

The Government say that money should he spent wisely. I agree with that. I hope that I spend the money in my pocket wisely. We want the electricity authority and the Department of Energy to spend their money wisely.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

It is our money.

Mr. Haynes

I accept what my hon. Friend says. It is our money. It is the taxpayers' money, and it should be spent wisely in their interests. Something must be done about the problem. I hope that the Minister will satisfy me this morning that something will be done.

The authorities say that, because of vandalism, they are running to stand still. That is not good enough when so much public money is being spent. I agree that a fair amount of cash is needed, but the problem must be overcome. That is why I applied to Mr. Speaker for this debate. I hope that what I have said has been listened to. I hope that the nation notes the fact that the Department of Energy is full of money. It has all the North sea oil revenues and it receives a great deal of money from the electricity consumer. The Department of Energy and the CEGB have a responsibility. I hope that those departments will respond to this morning's serious appeal so that we never again have such a tragedy anywhere in the United Kingdom.

9.53 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alaistair Goodlad)

I associate myself with what has been said by Mr. Speaker and by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) about the Father of the House. I am delighted that our debate this morning should be attended by that great House of Commons man.

This debate is about a subject of great seriousness. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised the matter. First, I must express my deepest sympathy with the parents and families of the victims of this tragic occurrence to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

On the early evening of Saturday 13 July two 11-year-old boys were in a substation at Selston. They were close to some of the equipment in that substation when there was an explosion which killed one boy outright and so severely injured the other that he died in hospital a few days later. The substation, which is in a housing estate, is what is known as a distribution substation where electricity at 11,000 volts is stepped down to low voltage for distribution to consumers. The main components were a transformer, a low voltage pillar and three interconnected 11,000 volts switches, and it was on the latter apparatus that the explosion occurred.

I shall answer as best I can what has been said by the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he will appreciate that investigations into the cause of the accident are continuing and that I should not wish to say anything that might be taken as being prejudicial to the coroner's inquest or to any other legal proceedings that might follow.

As the hon. Member will be aware, a preliminary inquest on the matter of identification was held on Thursday 18 July. There will, of course, be a full inquest later and the date of that is a matter for the coroner. The safety regulations applicable to such electricity substations are laid down in the Electricity Supply Regulations 1937, made under the Electricity (Supply) Acts 1882 to 1936. Regulation 9(a) provides that, where energy at high voltage is transformed, converted, regulated or otherwise controlled in substations or switch stations, including outdoor substations, such outdoor substations and outdoor switch stations shall (unless the apparatus is completely enclosed in a metal casing connected with earth, the apparatus also being connected with the system by armoured electric lines) be efficiently protected by fencing not less than eight feet in height or other means so as to prevent access to the electric lines and apparatus therein by any unauthorised person.

The apparatus in the Selston substation was what is known as metal-clad—that is, all the live electrical parts are enclosed within substantial metal covers and insulated to a very high standard. Although there was therefore no statutory requirement for it, the Selston high voltage equipment was in fact enclosed within a substantial brick wall, 6 ft. high, which was fitted with substantial and padlocked wooden doors. The area containing the substation was itself bounded by a fence about 4 ft. high. also with padlocked gates. A notice was fitted on the substation main gates warning of danger and giving details of how the electricity board staff could be contacted. The substation appears to have met in all respects the statutory requirements.

It appears that the explosion occurred in that part of the apparatus forming a link between two of the three 11,000 volts switches. That part of the equipment took the form of a horizontal cylinder, made from a strong alloy forging, 4½ in. long and about 15 in. in diameter which was 3 ft. from the ground. That cylinder appears for some reason to have failed to such an extent that it had been leaking the bitumen compound which formed the insulating material within the cylinder. As the bitumen leaked from the cylinder linking the two switches, the insulation level fell until the short circuit which caused the explosion occurred. All the electrical protection equipment operated properly to switch off all supplies to the substation when the explosion occurred. Detailed examination and tests of this equipment which simulated the electrical events of the previous day were undertaken on the following day and showed that the equipment was in good order and operating correctly.

It seems clear that the bitumen compound had been leaking from the cylinder, during the day time when temperatures are higher, on the day previous to the accident. Some of the local children were getting compound on that day from both the ground and that part of the switchgear where the explosion occurred the following day. It appears that several boys with quite large pieces of compound were seen locally on the day following the explosion. It appears that the two children were playing with this leaking bitumen inside the substation when the explosion occurred.

The cause of the original failure of the cylinder is not yet known and it would be wrong for me to speculate at this stage. All the relevant parts of the equipment are being examined by a specialised engineering laboratory, independent of the East Midlands electricity board, which is attached to a local power station.

All such substations, as the hon. Gentleman said, are regularly inspected by the East Midlands electricity board on a six-monthly basis, but may be visited more often for other reasons. The routine inspections require the signing of a pro-forma detailing any faults found following an examination of the apparatus in the substation, on the basis of a printed check list.

Two employees of the board had in fact carried out such a routine inspection of the substation on 31 May 1985 and their signed report of that inspection revealed the only faults in the substation as being the absence of some small labels. It is inconceivable that those employees would have missed leaked compound and the check list for the switchgear concerned particularly mentions that leakage must be checked for. The floor under that part of the equipment where the explosion occurred is fully open to view.

An electricity board employee was on the scene within half an hour of the explosion and one of the senior engineering inspectors from my Department went to the site on Tuesday 16 July before any significant change was made in the state of the equipment. The board quickly set up its own panel of inquiry which met on Friday 19 July and has met again since. The chairman of the investigating panel is from the board's headquarters and is thus not directly associated with the area in which the accident occurred, and the panel includes an independent safety officer from the Electricity Council.

The switchgear in the Selston substation is from a very well-known manufacturer, was made and installed in 1965, and is very substantial. There has never been a similar occurrence with equipment of this manufacture.

Planning permission is not required for such small substations. They must, however, because they supply ordinary premises at low voltage, be within about 300 yd of the furthest consumer fed from them. There are about 160,000 of that type of substation in England, Wales and Scotland and in the last 10 years there have been no other fatalities. In common with all electricity boards, the East Midlands electricity board makes great efforts to ensure that the public, and children in particular, are aware of the hazards associated with electricity. The board circulates all schools in its area with offers of safety visits, video literature and so on, and these efforts are usually intensified in early summer before the school holidays begin.

The technical operations of the electricity supply industry in England and Wales are governed by the Electricity Supply Regulations 1937, and regulation 38 requires area electricity boards to notify the Department of Energy of all those accidents on its works or circuits which have caused or were likely to have caused injury. The same regulation is followed by one which empowers the Department to investigate any accident or type of accident it wishes to. The East Midlands electricity board has complied with its obligations in that respect.

My engineering inspectorate examine carefully all such notifications made to it and make such visits and investigations of individual accidents as is appropriate. Therefore, this particular accident will be examined in detail by the Department to see whether the regulations have been observed and to identify whether the accident discloses any shortcomings in the regulations or in their application. My inspectors will have the benefit of the report from the board's own panel of inquiry.

All the accident notifications to the Department are collated and analyses are made with the object of detecting any trends to enable preventive action to be taken. These analyses go back many years and, for a variety of reasons, the incidence of accidents, fatalities and injuries on the electricity boards' equipment is in gradual but significant decline, and has been so over many years. The most important of the figures that come out of these analyses are published in the Secretary of State's annual reports to Parliament. Accidents in substations to members of the general public, which have resulted in fatality have amounted to six in the past 10 years. All of these took place in substations where, unlike at Selston, the conductors are in the open air, and which are therefore, under the regulations, surrounded with fences not less than 8ft in height. Most of those fatalities occurred after forcible entry and usually in the course of vandalism or attempted theft of equipment. Until this very tragic accident, there had been no fatalities in substations utilising metal-clad switchgear during that period.

There are more than 419,000 substations of all descriptions in the country. The number of injuries to the general public averages 14 per year, and include some falls and other minor matters. In general, the public are not subject to major or continuing hazards as a result of the existence of these installations.

My Department keeps the regulations under constant review and is at present undertaking a major update of the 1937 regulations as a whole. These will be the subject of widespread public consultation before being laid before the House in due course. I believe that experience to date does not indicate any need for radical change to those parts of the regulations applying to substations containing metal-clad switchgear, which have an extremely good safety record. None the less, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that should the results of the investigation into this accident indicate that changes to the regulations are required——

Mr. Haynes

The Minister referred to the distance between the substations and neighbouring residential property. The Selston substation is almost on top of neighbouring property. It must be outside the regulations. Perhaps the substation was there first and the property built later. Nevertheless, it is almost on top of the property.

I am listening carefully to the Minister's promise to examine the regulations closely to determine whether they need to be tightened. However, I am not quite happy with what he has said, although I appreciate that he has not finished yet. I make an application, here today, for a public inquiry into the incident. I did not want to make that point, but the Minister's remarks have drawn me to do so.

Mr. Goodlad

The hon. Gentleman's point about the location of the substation in relation to the houses will be taken into account in the investigation and the review.

By virtue of section 66 of the Electricity Act 1947, I have the power to cause an inquiry to be held in any case where I deem it advisable to do so, in connection with any matter arising under the electricity supply legislation. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman has said, of the inquiries being carried out by the board and by my engineering inspectorate, and of the verdict of the coroner's inquest, I shall consider whether a public inquiry would be desirable. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter in the House today because it is right that this very tragic matter should be thoroughly examined to see what lessons—which might go towards preventing similar occurrences—might be learned——

Mr. Haynes

A number of points are being drawn out because of what the Minister is saying. Police often go into schools to educate children about crime. For example, they tell them never to accept things from or go away with strangers. Does the Department issue instructions to the Central Electricity Generating Board and its regions to go into schools to educate children about the dangers of the substations, and tell them that they must keep away from them? That point should be seriously considered, as it would help to overcome the problem. As I said earlier, children will be children, so we must educate them to stay clear of such places.

Mr. Goodlad

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, electricity boards undertake a substantial programme of education in schools and provide demonstrations about electricity and its dangers. It is an enterprise in which everybody should join because there are clearly dangers in electricity. However, on the whole, I am confident that the regulations, which are subject to review, are adequate and that the practices are adequate as well.

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