HC Deb 06 February 1989 vol 146 cc647-51 3.31 pm
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the current outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in central London.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope)

An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease has been identified in the central London area. Ten people are currently suspected of being associated with the incident. I am confident that it is being dealt with in the best possible way by all the appropriate authorities. Westminster city council is in the lead because it enforces the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in offices, shops and hotels in the area. The Health and Safety Executive is assisting the environmental health team at Westminster city council.

It is important to keep this outbreak in perspective. If employers follow the procedures set out by the HSE in its guidance material, the problem of Legionnaires' disease is a controllable one. This outbreak emphasises the importance of doing so.

Mr. Janner

Does the Minister accept that responsibility for ensuring compliance by employers with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in general, and their duties in respect of Legionnaires' disease in particular, rests with him because of his responsibility for the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive?

Does the Minister know that the Select Committee on Employment has for several years been profoundly concerned at the increase in the number of incidents of Legionnaires' disease in various parts of the country, of which the most serious were in Stafford, where there were 101 cases and 28 deaths, at the BBC, where there were 58 cases and three deaths, and now at British Aerospace, where there are 36 confirmed cases and, happily, no deaths so far? Does he accept that the BBC case has not been dealt with properly by the courts and that the fine of £3,600 was derisory, disgraceful and utterly inadequate in dealing with what could have become a plague? Does he not understand that his Department has not provided facilities for the Health and Safety Commission and Executive properly to do their jobs in inspecting those air cooling towers which are causing these problems?

In the circumstances, while expressing sympathy to the sufferers and the hope that they will soon be well, may I ask him to reassure the House and the public that he is taking the matter seriously? Will he urge the courts to treat the causing of death in industry as a hugely serious matter that deserves appropriate penalties? Will he please tell the House in far more detail what is being done to contain the outbreak and to find people who may believe that they are suffering from pneumonia but in fact are suffering from Legionnaires' disease?

Mr. Cope

I shall endeavour to respond to all those questions from the hon. and learned Gentleman. First, I did my best to reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman and the House that we are certainly taking the outbreak seriously. As for the BBC case, I do not think that I should comment today on individual decisions of the courts, but it is certainly very important that the courts consider the penalties for individual cases involving health and safety very carefully, subject to the Acts which govern it and their statutory responsibilities. I am aware of the cases that the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned and of the interest of the Select Committee, with which I know that he has been involved. Responsibility is governed by the allocation regulations of 1977, which were made under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974. They allocate responsibility for inspection between the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities. As I said in my original reply, the responsibility for shops, hotels and offices rests with the city council—in this case Westminster city council—as the environmental health authority. It is taking action and doing its best to isolate the incidents caused by the outbreak. It has appealed—and I reinforce that appeal—for any doctors who suspect cases of Legionnaires' disease to contact it at once so that they may be taken into account in the inquiry and so that it can do its best to discover the cause and treat those who, unfortunately, are subject to the disease.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Is my right hon. Friend absolutely sure that the guidance notes which go out to the managers and engineers of the various establishments, hospitals, office blocks and others using air cooling tower systems are clear enough in the directions that are necessary to carry out procedures to check and test the water supply and then to carry out very quick biocide treatment to ensure that any Legionnella that is discovered is dealt with immediately?

Mr. Cope

The guidelines are very clear and we know of no incidence of Legionnaires' disease when the guidelines have been followed. A new leaflet was put out just a few days ago and has received some attention in the press. It is quite short, extremely clear, and gives good initial guidance. Obviously the full guidance is much more elaborate, but the initial guidance in the new leaflet is extremely helpful.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Will the Minister take on board the fact that we are dealing not with an isolated case, but that this is the third series of cases in a relatively short period stretching between London and Bolton? As various groups share responsibility, and as there has been a series of outbreaks, will the Minister consider introducing some co-ordination so that we can bring together all the lessons that have been learned by examining the cases that have been investigated and apply them when dealing with any others that may arise?

Mr. Cope

It is important that the different authorities with responsibility in different areas co-ordinate the information they gather. That is particularly important in an incident such as this, in which people from a wide area might be affected. The Health and Safety Executive does co-ordinate information from all the different outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I know how serious Legionnaires' disease can be as I suffered from an air conditioning virus about two years ago. However, will the Minister ensure that this does not become the latest in a long line of panics? Will he put the problem into perspective and continue to act with determination, together with Westminster city council, to try to find the origins of the disease, rather than react as the press and some Opposition Members might and turn the incident into another great disaster?

Mr. Cope

I do not think that it qualifies for the great disaster stakes. There are up to 200 cases of Legionnaires' disease a year compared with 180,000 cases of pneumonia. About 15 or 20 people die each year die from Legionnaires' disease. It is important to keep things in perspective but we should do everything possible to control and look after the disease.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Given the number of water-cooled plants in central London, notwithstanding what has been said by the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), this is potentially disastrous and the Minister must appreciate that. Will he consider introducing legislation requiring annual inspections of the plants, because that seems to be overdue? Will he give a clear undertaking from the Dispatch Box that the Government will make all resources available to the House and Westminster city council, if they request them, in order to track down the current outbreak?

Mr. Cope

There is no indication that the resources currently available are inadequate for the purpose. In fact, as far as I know, they are entirely adequate. We would respond carefully to any request for further legislation from the HSC or the HSE, as we always do. So far, they have not suggested the need for further legislation.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that such outbreaks are, in essence, unnecessary and avoidable? Will he recognise that every case investigated by the Select Committee on Employment has shown that the guidelines issued by the Health and Safety Executive—known as EH48—were known to the employers, management and staff but were not being followed? Therefore, will he think clearly and carefully about the need to make those guidelines legally enforceable so that it becomes an offence for anybody to fail to carry them out? Will he accept that, if he does that, he will find that we do not need question and answer sessions such as this in the House in future?

Mr. Cope

I do not want to cut off question and answer sessions in the House, but I would rather deal with the disease. I have already said that we shall consider any specific proposals for legislation made by the Health and Safety Executive, the Health and Safety Commission or by other people. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that employers must provide for the health and safety of their employees. It was under that Act that the BBC was recently taken to court. Therefore, it is already an offence not to provide for the health and safety of one's employees.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

Will the Minister say that more than five cases have already been confirmed? He mentioned only 10 suspected cases. Will he give instructions to staff to inspect the water coolers manufactured and used from 1972 because they seem to be causing the difficulties? Will he let the House know whether inspections of jacuzzis and whirlpools will be encompassed in the instructions?

Mr. Cope

The information I received just before I came to the House was that there were 10 suspected cases and five confirmed. I mentioned the figure of 10 in my original answer. All employers and others concerned should follow the advice which is already given in the guidance on Legionnaires' disease. If they have done that thoroughly, their cooling systems should cause no problems. It is, of course, important to follow the specific advice of the environmental health officers who are on the spot dealing with this outbreak.

Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South)

Will my hon. Friend assure us that this place is not affected by Legionnaires' disease? When were the water systems of this place last tested for Legionnaires' disease?

Mr. Cope

I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific reply to his first question, but I understand that the guidance given by the Health and Safety Commission and Executive in their leaflets is carefully followed throughout this building.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will the Minister look at international experience in this area, especially the work done by the World Health Organisation and by the European Parliament, which have seriously considered over a number of years the implications of diseases caused by air conditioning, of which Legionnaires' disease is the most extreme? Does he agree that the sick building syndrome, probably caused by air conditioning, has not been taken seriously enough in Britain? Surely it is time that much firmer and stronger guidelines were issued by the Government, as diseases caused by air conditioning can cause many days off work and other serious problems for people.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler), will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the air conditioning system in this place is inspected? Because of the effect that the air conditioning has on me in this Chamber—sitting here for over an hour at a time—and looking at my hon. Friends., I believe that the air conditioning system needs proper inspection and regular cleaning. I do not believe that that happens.

Mr. Cope

I believe that that does happen. One has to be careful before blaming the air conditioning for behaviour of hon. Members.

The Health and Safety Executive is in close and continuous touch with its colleagues in Europe and elsewhere about this, and, of course, other health problems. It is important that we make the best use that we can of everything that can be learnt from overseas. This disease was first identified in the United States, from where we received our original information about it.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Will the Minister confirm that, while two air conditioning systems have been closed down, there are another 31 within a 200-metre radius of the National Gallery which are currently being investigated? Will he name the two large office buildings affected, so that the office workers within them and those who have used them within the past six weeks can be alerted to seek immediate medical advice if they have any relevant symptoms? As any of the 33 air conditioning systems in the area may be the source, will the Minister order them all to be shut down and until tests are fully completed to eliminate any further risk?

When referring to the previous outbreak at the BBC, the Secretary of State said: any lessons learnt will be acted upon".—[Official Report, 5 July 1988; Vol. 136, c. 883.] Is it not clear that lessons have not been learnt, because another outbreak has occurred only 10 months later and only a few hundred yards away? Therefore, because wet cooling systems have been the source of previous outbreaks, will he consider the permanent closure of all wet cooling systems in urban areas?

Mr. Cope

I cannot confirm the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave in the first part of his question, nor am I prepared to name individual systems which have been shut down, because I believe that to do so might give the impression that no other systems could be involved, and that anyone who was suspected of having Legionnaires' disease but who had not been involved with those two, or adjacent buildings, could not be affected. That is not the case. It could be extremely wider. I believe that the best guidance is that given by the Westminster city council and the environmental health people, which is that any doctor who suspects anybody of having Legionnaires' disease and who might be in any way connected with this outbreak should contact them. The wider the net is thrown, the better.

I do not believe that it would be right to close all such air conditioning systems. As I said earlier, if the guidelines are followed those systems are not dangerous. On the contrary. Therefore, there is no need to close them all, but it is necessary for people to follow the guidelines to ensure that they operate their systems correctly. That was one of the lessons learnt from the previous outbreak and that is the lesson that we are trying to get home to the public with the aid of the leaflets that I mentioned earlier.