HC Deb 02 July 1986 vol 100 cc1141-8

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

12.17 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate on the Adjournment the subject of Government policy towards support of charitable funds established following disasters. I am particularly grateful for that selection as in one way or another I have sought to have this matter debated since at least the autumn of last year.

I am also grateful that in his place is the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, because the Government know that one of the most recent and important examples of this issue has been manifested in connection with the Abbeystead water pumping station disaster that happened just over two years ago and for which the Minister's predecessor was in some respects the accountable Minister. I also welcome the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman), whose constituency was the most severely affected by that disaster.

When there is a disaster in Britain, or if it affects British citizens, what should the Government do by way of compensating them in an ex gratia way from taxpayers' money from the contingency fund when their only other remedy, if at all, may lie clown a long and tortuous legal road involving much cost, risk and hardship, with no certainty of satisfaction? In that context, there have, tragically, been four recent occasions when this issue has come to the public's attention. I will mention these incidents and then consider in greater detail the particular incident which has caused me to ask when the Government will recognise that it is appropriate, in cases where they have not yet done so, that they, on behalf of the nation, should make a contribution? When will they pay some money to support and compensate the victims, the bereaved or injured, following a disaster?

On 23 May 1984 there was a horrendous methane gas explosion in the valve house of the Abbeystead pumping station in Lancashire, which was opened only four years before. As a result of that explosion, 16 people were killed, three of whom were employees of the North-West water authority, and 28 people were severely injured. Most of the people who were killed or injured came from the village of Saint Michael's on Wyre in Lancashire. They had been visiting the pumping station that evening.

Since then there have been three other occasions when there has been a comparable national tragedy to which the Government have been asked to respond. On I I May 1985 in Bradford there was—as hon. Members will recall—a horrifying fire which enveloped the stadium causing death, destruction and injury. Only a fortnight later in Brussels on 29 May 1985 in the Heysel stadium, on the occasion of the Juventus versus Liverpool football match, there was a savage set of events dramatically witnessed also by people on television from afar, which resulted in death and many injuries.

On the two occasions to which I have just referred, the Government made contributions to the charitable funds that were set up. In Bradford, a sum of £250,000 was paid from the Contingency Reserve Fund. A sum of £230,000 was contributed in response to the Brussels disaster via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the victims. It appears that a response was also contemplated on a third occasion on 27 August 1985 when there was an air disaster at Manchester airport. In the event, that was resolved in a legal manner in a matter of weeks by way of a "mid-Atlantic" settlement and there was therefore no need for a Government response. A substantial sum in the order of millions of pounds was paid in compensation.

However, as of tonight, nearly two years and two months after the Abbeystead disaster, there has been no public recognition on behalf of the nation to compensate those who feel that they have been forgotten. Why have these people been treated differently? What is it about policy that prevents those people from benefiting from a donation from the Government? Will the Government now, by virtue of the Minister's response, consider whether it is possible for these people to receive some compensation?

A charitable fund was set up and £85,000 of public money was raised including a contribution which was received from the North-West water authority. That money has been spent almost entirely on helping with hospital visits and immediate concerns. It has effectively been exhausted and it has not covered any of the legal costs of those seeking legal remedies and has not compensated them for the personal suffering and experience that they have had since then. There has been no Government contribution.

Why has there been no Government contribution? The Government's reason for that—certainly since early last year—is that there is a court case in progress. However, I believe that there is no principle of law or equity which should, as a direct consequence, mean that once a court has begun there can be no Government contribution to these matters. It is wrong in law to say that that is not possible. As I understand both law and practice, any ex gratia contribution, in the hands of the recipient, whether it is later taken into account for other purposes, does not preclude or interfere with the issue of liability, which is the matter being litigated.

When the response to the disaster was made on 24 May 1984, the then Minister of State, Department of Employment, said that an inquiry would commence under the Health and Safety Executive, as indeed it did. He then indicated, as he and his colleagues did by their visits to Lancashire, that the Government would respond in as sympathetic a way as possible. Only a week later, on 30 May, the Minister responsible went to Abbeystead to look at the pumping station, then to a meeting with villagers at St. Michael's on Wyre and then to visit the victims in hospital.

It is true that the verdict of the inquest in October 1984 was accidental death, but in February 1985 the Health and Safety Executive report made it clear that there were severe criticisms of what had happened at Abbeystead and that several factors had contributed to the fatal explosion. The most severe was the design of the ventilation system which, for environmental reasons, had no direct outlet but an outlet back into the valve house. That was, in effect, the cause of the explosion. There were also unauthorised decisions—for example, to leave a valve partly open so that the tunnel was not kept full of water as intended, and not to follow the code of practice in the manual, in any event inadequate, which meant that there had been no inspection of the tunnel at all since it had been built.

The following comment was made at the end of the report on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive: We have decided not to press charges of criminal negligence against the water authority. It is for the authority to consider the extent of its responsibility morally, humanly and civilly. Since then, a court action was begun in June 1985 against the water authority, Binnie and Partners the consulting engineers and Edmund Nuttall the civil engineering contractors. In July 1985 a defence was put in. In the same month, the then Minister for Housing and Construction said that the Government could take no further steps. As the Minister knows, I have always accepted that the Government quite properly cannot interfere in the litigation. There have been articles in the New Scientist and the New Statesman and the hon. Member for Lancaster sought to pursue matters in the autumn of 1985. Again, the Leader of the House told her that no steps could be taken. There was then correspondence between my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party and the water authority and between me and the Minister who is replying to today's debate, the Government again saying ultimately that they felt unable to intervene.

I especially ask the Government to reconsider their decision, not only because I believe that the principle is wrong, but in the light of two other factors that make this a special case. First, whatever the exact words used, when in May 1984 the then Minister went on behalf of the Government to meet people in St. Michael's on Wyre, some of whom I have now met, the local people came away with the distinct impression—the words used led them to this conclusion—that they had been assured that the Government would do all that they could. That was a specific and additional commitment.

It is also clear from the Health and Safety Executive report that, although the events did not lead the HSE to the conclusion that it should proceed legally to prosecute, none the less there were things that had gone badly wrong. Even if there were no formal requirement for a response on behalf of the Government, it was implied that somebody should take responsibility for compensating the people concerned. I do not suggest that any particular Minister is responsible—it is a matter for the nation and for the Government of the day — but the Minister charged said that he could give no specific undertaking that the Government would be able to find specific funds, although I believe that it was accepted that funds exist for payment of compensation of this kind if the Government choose to use them.

The people of Abbeystead and St. Michael's on Wyre have come to feel especially aggrieved when they read this year, for example, that £100,000 was paid to a horse injured by the North-Eastern electricity board, while they had still received nothing. They have had no help through legal aid. They are pursuing together their legal remedies. But all the time they are doing without the money that they need to make their lives more tolerable. Many of the people who were bereaved are coping with children and relatives in a difficult position. Many people were very badly injured and were lucky to survive.

I hope the Government will accept that there is an enormous feeling which goes well beyond the village of St. Michael's and across the boundaries of the county of Lancashire that it would be appropriate now for the Government to consider making a payment on behalf of the nation that in no way would preclude other rights that the individuals might be able to enforce.

I do not wish to end by paying any tribute to individuals who were affected. It would be invidious to name one or some but not others. Many people have, however, sought to take up the case of these tragically affected families and individuals. I pay tribute in general to the members of the press in Lancashire who have campaigned consistently and honourably on behalf of the people in the area that they represent in their profession. The local newspapers—the Lancaster Guardian, the Garstang Courier, the Lancashire Evening Post and the Blackpool Gazette — have done consistently good work in arguing the case.

I want to end with a quote from one of those newspapers because it puts the case far more cogently than perhaps any words from a parliamentarian can do. The editorial in the Lancashire Evening Post of 29 October last year, which was headed: Time to end this cruel waiting game said: The Abbeystead case seems more unfair because there could soon be settlements of both the Manchester air disaster and Bradford football fire claims. There has been tremendous pressure to settle these because they happened in very public places rather than a waterworks in the middle of nowhere. But surely the principle is the same. The injuries were the same; the burns the same … the agony is the same. They should all have their compensation without having to engage in legal chess. I hope that the Government can say that they will respond in a similar way to alleviate the misery of these poor individuals who have suffered enough already.

12.32 am
Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I should like to make one or two points as my constituents were so tragically involved. One cannot visit any event in the villages around St. Michael', as I was doing last weekend and shall be doing again this weekend — and as I do most weekends—without seeing people who have been tragically scarred physically by the awful event at Abbeystead at 7.30 pm on the evening of Wednesday 23 May 1984. Indeed, had it not been a Wednesday it is likely that I should have been there myself.

But those physical scars are, if anything, the least important. It is the mental and psychological scars that are harder to bear and to heal, and to see in those one loves, and the loss of loved ones the terrifying memories that do not go away. Those scars cannot begin to heal until the question of compensation for the victims has been settled. It is now over two years since the accident, and the end is not yet in sight.

Eager though my constituents are to have an end to this agonising waiting, they know that they have a just and cast iron case for compensation, and they will pursue it to a successful conclusion. Anything that the Government can do to expedite that successful conclusion would be gratefully welcomed by my constituents.

12.33 am
The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it must be a twelve month or more since I stood under your stern eye at the Dispatch Box during an Adjournment debate. I do it tonight for two reasons. The first is to give the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), a well-deserved night off from replying to Adjournment debates. In any event, he is so far ahead of the field that his place in the "Guinness Book of Records" as the all-time speaker in Adjournment debates is completely safe and sound. The second reason is that I have taken a particular interest in the tragic event at Abbeystead since it was first drawn to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman). It is clear that all of us share a deep concern for the victims of the explosion, and their dependants. They have our deepest sympathy. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster has been particularly active in bringing to my attention their problems and in striving to find ways of easing them, and of speeding up the difficult processes that they must go through in pursuit of their claims in the courts of law. She has used her regional contacts with the chairman and chief executive of the water authority with equal vigour to ensure that they do not forget the urgent need for as quick a settlement as possible. She has corresponded with me regularly, as well as with the Lord Chancellor and with some of my other colleagues. This is one of those issues that cuts across Governments and Departments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster also led a delegation of some of those injured at Abbeystead to see me around last Christmas time. That gave me the opportunity to hear at first hand about their feelings and frustrations, and to see the injuries that they have suffered. Thus, I have a slight knowledge of what they have gone through. But all of us are constrained by the current proceedings in the High court, and none of us can or should seek to do or say anything that might affect their natural outcome.

I turn to the tragic accident. The Abbeystead valve chamber is part of the major water supply project by which water can be transferred by tunnel at times of need from the river Lune to the river Wyre. The works were commissioned in 1980 when the chamber was inspected by the Health and Safety Executive—it is important to put this on the record again—which rated it as a low risk installation. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has already recounted that on the night of 23 May 1984, when 36 local residents from St. Michael's on Wyre were on a visit of inspection, together with eight employees of the North-West water authority, there was an explosion which all but demolished the valve chamber. Sixteen of the 44 persons present lost their lives and all the others were injured, some very seriously. Indeed, I have met one or two of them.

As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey said, the circumstances of the accident were thoroughly investigated by the Health and Safety Executive, whose report was published in February 1985 after consideration by the Health and Safety Commission. The report concluded that the explosion had been caused by the ignition of a mixture of methane gas and air carried into the valve chamber by the flow of water from the tunnel when the pumps were switched on after a period of inaction during which the tunnel had partly emptied.

In effect, the methane gas had entered the tunnel in solution in water from the surrounding rock and had been released in gaseous form into the air spaces in the tunnel. But I must stress in response to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that the executive did not attribute any blame for the accident, although with hindsight — I stress that — it considered that the explosion could have been avoided. Of course, no criminal proceedings have been instituted or are, I understand, presently being considered.

In June 1985, actions in the civil courts for damages were started by those bereaved or injured by the explosion. There are three separate defendants: the water authority, the consulting engineers who designed the scheme, and the construction company which built it. The water authority, its insurers, solicitors and counsel have, I understand, made every effort to ensure that there has been no delay on their part in this case. I have stressed to the chairman of the water authority that there should be no delay on the part of the water authority. I believe that it has moved as swiftly as may be on all occasions in order to ensure that there has been no delay. I should be surprised and appalled to be told that there was any evidence to the contrary. There is some news, in that I understand that an application will be made by solicitors for the water authority to Mr. Justice Christopher Rose in the High Court on Wednesday 9 July for an order that the case be set down for hearing on Monday 6 October.

For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster, I repeat that an application will be made by solicitors for the water authority to Mr. Justice Christopher Rose in the High Court on Wednesday 9 July so that the case may be set down for hearing on Monday 6 October 1986. In the circumstances, we can say nothing more about the legal proceedings. Certainly, I could not make any comment as to blame.

Having given that piece of news to the House, I turn to more general principles. I am pleased to note that there has been positive action by neighbours and others in the region to give some solace to those bereaved or injured by the accident by means of contributions to the disaster fund organised by the Lancashire Evening Post immediately after the accident. I understand that the fund collected about £100,000, of which one fifth— £20,000 — was donated by the water authority. About one fifth of the money has come from public funds. I have been advised that all the moneys have been distributed equally to the 44 families affected by the tragedy. That is a small consolation in the circumstances, but it is an indication of the traditional response of the British public in times of tragedy, especially those who live in Lancashire.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, understandably, compared the position of the victims of Abbeystead with that of the victims of the equally tragic Bradford football fire—I visited the scene shortly after the fire, when I was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security—and the Heysel stadium disaster. The Government made donations to relief funds on both those occasions. It was stressed at the time that the contributions were not just significant but were exceptional.

The Government felt — I know that the hon. Gentleman will not agree—that the tragedies were so exceptional in their public impact as to warrant such an unusual departure from the general rule that the Government do not contribute to relief funds. Generally speaking, Governments of all political colours have followed that course.

It would be painful for me and for those who may read the debate in Hansard to begin to say where scale should be taken into account when we consider the pain suffered by individuals and when we try to make some recompense from public funds. Governments would always be in a difficult position if they were faced with demands for compensation on every occasion a disaster occurred, however few people were affected. Where does one draw the line? The hon. Gentleman is well known in the House for being fair-minded in his approach to issues. It is a question which I cannot answer. All I know is that one could turn to an individual person harmed in a disaster. The position of that one person is just as bad as the terrible deaths of the 16 people in Abbeystead, and the pain caused to their relatives as well as those involved in the Bradford fire and the Heysel stadium disaster.

I do not think that it would be appropriate for the Government to make donations at taxpayers' expense to the legal costs of a plaintiff pursuing an action for damages in the courts. A plaintiff would not commence proceedings in the courts unless he had been professionally advised that there was a reasonable chance of success. For such a plaintiff, the net result of any successful action would be the damages which he secures, less the legal fees that he has had to pay, assuming that they are not recovered in whole or part from his opponent. The legal aid scheme is to assist the plaintiff of more modest means. If such a plaintiff recovers any money or property as a result of legally aided proceedings, the legal aid fund will be recouped from his winnings to that extent.

Where one of a number of plaintiffs is legally aided and wishes to bring a test case—this is important in the context of those who suffered so much in these sad circumstances—contributions can be obtained under the scheme for all the interested joint plaintiffs. All those interested joint plaintiffs can obtain legal aid under the scheme. That may have a considerable bearing in this case.

The debate highlights the difficulties — I would be foolish to try to hide them—of any Government who seek to meet the public response to disasters which are brought before us on our television screens or in our newspapers, regionally and nationally. It highlights the difficulties of deciding where and when Government could and should contribute to a disaster fund. It highlights how important it is for those people who have been or who feel that they have been harmed to pursue their cases as vigorously as possible, helped by all the normal means available. It is important to everyone involved in cases such as this—I speak generally, not about Abbeystead itself—that we ensure that those cases are expedited.

I thank the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey for raising this matter. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster for her presence and her unstinting efforts on her constituents' behalf in their present difficult position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.