HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc680-8 11.44 am
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of the pollution at the Camelford water treatment works, which occurred on 6 July 1988. The matter has been given undue prominence again during the past few days and I believe that it should be debated in the House and that, on this occasion, we should try to get the facts straight.

I intend to rehearse a few of the details surrounding the incident and its immediate aftermath; to deal with certain points that arose from the Lawrence report, which was produced as a result of studying what had happened; to deal with elements of the Clayton report, which was an independent medical inquiry, to deal with certain specific issues, such as whether there has been a cover-up, whether there should be a public inquiry, the contribution of the press and the media and then to consider certain recommendations of the Clayton report.

Camelford and its immediate surrounding area is one of the most attractive parts of the west country. Hon. Members who represent the west country speak highly of our constituency environment. We are proud of it. The area around Camelford, stretching out from Port Issac, Tintagel and Boscastle is one of the prettiest areas in my constituency. In 1988, its faith in the standard of its water supply was shattered as a result of an event on 6 July. It was only during the next few days that some elements of the scale of the incident became known when people had the most extraordinary reactions when using the water in tea and coffee or for washing. Many dead fish were seen in local streams and rivers. However, at the same time, people were being assured by representatives of the water authority—this was before privatisation—that the water was perfectly safe to use and to drink. When I was in the constituency, I heard such reassurances being given on the local radio.

It has since become clear that in the middle of the following week the board of the water authority knew exactly what had happened and decided, in the interests of public confidence and not causing undue alarm, not to tell the public what had happened.

In the first week following the incident, suspicion and alarm grew. The press discovered that the incident had been caused by a lorry tipping 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate into the wrong tank at the treatment works, thereby polluting drinking water which was entering the main system on the Lowermoor network. The Lawrence inquiry, which was set up by the water authority, reported at the beginning of August, setting out the full details of exactly what happened and why.

An appalling chapter of incidents had led to the pollution of the water supply. The inquiry reported the most desperately awful accounting between various members of the water authority dealing with the incident. It revealed gross lapses of security; the delivery lorry driver had a key to the treatment works and that key fitted every padlock on the premises; there were no signs to the various tanks so it is little wonder that the new driver visiting the site for the first time had little or no idea where to tip the chemical.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) in his place. During the months following the incident he has shared my concern. He will recall that I was particularly outspoken at the time about the attitudes and actions of the water authority and the board. I made certain demands of the Secretary of State which were not heeded at the time.

However, exactly what happened has been made quite clear. A lorry tipped 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate into the wrong tank, thus polluting the water supply. The water authority reacted to the inquiry's report by accepting responsibility for the incident, apologising for it, and subsequently meeting certain clear-cut claims for loss.

From August to December 1988, suspicion grew that the public were not being told the truth. One of the reasons why I was so outspoken at the time of the publication of the Lawrence report was that, because the public had not been told immediately about what had happened, subsequently they found any pronouncement about it hard to believe.

In so far as my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) have any influence on any public institutions in future, I urge them to make absolutely certain that when those institutions commit an error they are directed to publish the facts immediately, because if they do not there are the most profound effects on the local population.

Between August and December 1988 various comments were made—many without foundation. We were informed that the sludge in the bottom of the tank into which the aluminium sulphate had been poured meant that the aluminium sulphate would have entered the water supply far more quickly than had previously been thought, and that information caused alarm. It is also clear that a number of people were still complaining about feeling unwell.

I went to see the Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who is now the Minister of State, Department of Transport, just before Christmas 1988. I was accompanied by Walter Roberts from Camelford whom I thank for all his efforts. We impressed upon the Minister that he should set up an independent medical inquiry, which was subsequently established under the chairmanship of Professor Barbara Clayton. It was appointed on 11 January 1989 and began its research into the problems.

Before the setting up of the inquiry, it was established that, with one exception, there was considerable scepticism among all the local general practitioners that there had been any unusual referrals of patients to them as a result of the incident. They could not detect any particular abnormalities in the referrals. Nevertheless, the panel, which included some extremely eminent people, considered the incident in great detail. Subsequently it reported that the Camelford incident had resulted in no long-term health effects. It judged that the worst possible level of aluminium contained in the water supply that could have been consumed by any of my constituents could not have led to permanent health damage.

Hon. Members who are interested in these matters will know that Professor Edwardson of Newcastle general hospital was a member of the committee. He is a renowned expert in the subject and was impressive in giving evidence at the publication of the findings. He told those present that he and a laboratory assistant had drunk a sample of the worst possible level of aluminium that could have been consumed and had suffered no ill effects. He also said that considerable work on aluminium intake had been done at Newcastle general hospital and elsewhere. Work had been carried out on renal patients who, by the nature of their problem, consume over much longer periods far higher levels of aluminium than were ever experienced in the Camelford area. Such work has shown that it takes a long time of sustained high-level intake before any material effect is registered.

After the report was published and as a result of the incidents I have described, there were people only too ready to dispute its findings, question its efficacy and challenge the reputation of those on the panel. I must tell the House and my hon. Friend the Minister that I did not join in any of that. I was happy with the way in which the report had dealt with the matter. I was further reassured because Professor Edwardson said that if I ever needed any further information from him, I could obtain it.

It has been suggested in various correspondence and by certain people affected by the incident or those seeking to help them that there has been a cover-up. As the local Member of Parliament I have sought to apply such judgment and experience as I have—at times, in scientific matters, it seems to have been far too little—to discover whether that is the case. I have come across no evidence of a cover-up, though I remind the House of the unfortunate decision made at the start when the water authority decided not to inform the public until the publication of the Lawrence report.

Ministers have always been extremely helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the new Minister have all been open and helpful. This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as Under-Secretary of State for Health. The health authority has done all it can to help, but it is not for the health authority to prove that certain problems relate to the Camelford incident. It is charged with the duty of looking after public health. As I have said, I have found no evidence of a cover-up and that should be placed on the record.

People have asked—and are asking again as a result of the publicity this week—for some form of judicial review or public inquiry. I hope that whenever that is put to my hon. Friend the Minister he will see to it that his officials remind him, by inserting the word "resist" on his brief, that that would not be a good idea. An enormous amount of time and effort would be taken up by a public inquiry which would tell us nothing that we do not already know. We know exactly what happened and who was responsible, because they have accepted responsibility and even paid damages. We are left with a medical problem, which we must consider.

I am a great believer in freedom of speech and certainly of the press and I have always expressed doubt when pressures have been exerted in this place to curtail it. However, I have been astonished by some of the reports in the national press and other media. They seem to accept only the evidence and opinons of certain people to prove a certain point and content themselves solely with trying to promote that point without scientific evidence to back it. Often, they do not give people who hold an opposite view the chance to contribute to articles or to give their view of statements that are made.

There has been a litany of such cases, and I shall refer to the Clayton report, the independent inquiry into the health aspects of this incident, which says in its conclusions and recommendations:

Serious anxiety about the possibilities of long-term effects has been widespread in the community. Much of the continuing anxiety is attributable to reports in newspapers, radio and television which have given prominence to alarming statements by some scientists concerning the long-term effects for which there is no adequate scientific foundation. I can only urge those who are rightly interested in the subject to ensure that they take proper account of that and seek to advance our understanding of the medical implications of the incident rather than merely channel it in ways that appeal to some political, environmental and other interests, because that is not in the best interests of my constituents, who are trying to discover why some of them are undoubtedly ill and have been proved to be ill.

I suspect that were you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to ask hon. Members about what they had read in the press or seen on the media in the past few days, their clear impression would be that brain damage has been caused as a result of this incident. The first sentence of a press release of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority, which was issued with a recently published paper that caused the media activity in the past few days, says: Despite tests, no scientific proof has been produced that contaminated water two years ago affected the memory or caused major life changes for the people in the Camelford area who drank it. The collection of papers on the Lowermoor incident which were published with the press release show nothing that links cases of illness to the incident. We must be careful about what we say.

The conclusions and recommendations of the Clayton report state: 10. An appropriate expert organisation should be designated to provide the directors of public health with authoritative medical and toxicological advice without delay in the event of an incident. A national panel should be established comprised of independent scientists whose expertise is most likely to be relevant and who would be willing to assist the designated organisation at short notice. 11. In the event that members of the public have been exposed to chemically contaminated waste as a result of an incident, the designated organisation should advise the directors of public health of clinical tests relevant to assessment of exposure and to the diagnosis and treatment of patients. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that his predecessor accepted the report's findings and I should be interested to hear what steps have been taken to establish a panel. One of the complaints made by local doctors, the health authority and certain integrated parties is that they have not been able to find out from the acknowledged experts what they should do. I would not want to put any colleague through what faced north Cornwall or through the difficulty that we faced in not being able to direct people to expert information. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take whatever steps remain to be taken to ensure that a panel is established quickly and that every director of public health is informed of its existence and how to get information about it quickly. That important adjunct to their service should be available.

The final recommendation in the Clayton report states: In the event that expert advice indicates a serious possibility of long-term harm, clinical surveillance and epidemiological following should be implemented. Knowing my hon. Friend the Minister, I am certain that, unless I admit that there is a contradiction in my contribution, he will remind me of one. I have said that I have not found any evidence that has suggested to me, as a Member of Parliament who is deeply interested in this matter, any connection between the illness of certain people which has been reported and the incident on 6 July. If I find that there is such evidence, I shall do whatever I can to ensure that it is used in the right way. I have established with Professor Edwardson of the Clayton panel that the latest series of papers issued change his opinion not one jot. He remains absolutely convinced that there is no evidence of a connection.

In connection with that final recommendation of the Clayton report, I must say this. As I have admitted, in a number of cases the press and media have been gravely irresponsible in their coverage of this matter. There have been some excellent and balanced reports, but there have been reports—no doubt there will be more—that have been grossly unbalanced and have pushed a particular line. No doubt, for their own reasons, some outside this place will want to do the same. The cumulative effect on my constituents' anxiety is profound.

I concede that this is true throughout the country but people in Camelford are ill and the doctors cannot say why. Moreover, the reports that have been made and even the papers that have been issued contain comments to the effect that the authors can see no causal link but that they cannot rule out the possibility of a connection. It is to the great credit of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority that it is continuing to look at the evidence that is coming to it and to press for further research. For example, a report on pregnancy tests in the area is almost completed.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to accept that, although there is no such evidence, recommendation 11 should be activated for the benefit of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority and that the health authority should be encouraged—in so far as it needs any encouragement—to set up a panel of acknowledged experts on the various elements of the matter to whom it can refer and whom it can ask to research the matter. I say that simply because I do not have the conviction that this is the last time that the matter will blow up in the press and media. I think that it will happen again and again because there are too many grey areas with which it is impossible to deal. Every time that happens, it will cause anxiety and problems.

I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that he intends not to institute a public inquiry, because that would be irrelevant and would divert too much attention away from the medical research that needs to be done. I hope that, at every possible opportunity, he will encourage the publication of the correct story and the known evidence, to reassure my constituents of the truth on every possible occasion. I hope that he will ensure that the panel to deal with incidents across the country is established quickly and made known to health authorities throughout England and Wales. I hope that he will assist the health authority in any way possible to set up its own panel to advise it.

Perhaps at the same time my hon. Friend could make it clear that, like me, he has no evidence to suggest that the water supply is now in any way unsafe and that we are talking about a historical incident. Perhaps he will make it clear that it is perfectly safe for people to live in Camelford, to consume the water and to go on holiday there and have a jolly good time. Finally, will he confirm that if, at some stage, someone finds proof and wishes to sue those responsible, either the new privatised company or the existing residuary water authority will deal with the matter?

12.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)


Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

I take it that the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again. That is so.

Mr. Dorrell

I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to speak twice. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) have considerable reason to be grateful to him for the effective way in which he has sought to represent their concerns and to address the real issues that arose from the incident which occurred more than two years ago.

My hon. Friend has given the background facts of the incident, so I shall not weary the House by repeating them. He has also demonstrated once again that he is the full master of the facts surrounding the incident and that he is well capable of drawing out the key issues of concern to his constituents—the public concerns arising from the incident have been real and have to be addressed—and of ensuring that substantial facts are addressed and that facts are distinguished from unfounded allegations, and, perhaps even worse, the allegations of those who have a malicious intent in using public concerns for their own short-term gains.

The real issues that arise from the Camelford incident can broadly be divided into two headings. First, there are the operational issues of a water undertaking and, secondly, there are the public health issues and the concern about whether the Camelford incident resulted in identifiable health risks for those who drank the admittedly polluted water.

As my hon. Friend said, the operational aspects were the nexus of the issues addressed by the Lawrence report, published in August 1988, which provided a clear analysis of the undoubted shortcomings that led to the incident. There were clear shortcomings of management which the report identified. The South West water authority took steps to rectify those.

My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment asked all water undertakings to review their management and operating procedures, their on-site security, their procedures for receiving chemicals, their monitoring of the quality of treated water and their emergency plans. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), now the Secretary of State for Employment but then the Minister responsible for water, reported to the House in April 1989 that a number of improved operational procedures had been adopted in the water industry following that review.

Therefore, the water industry can legitimately claim that it took effective action to learn the lessons of the incident and then took steps to ensure that those lessons were disseminated and that action was taken to try to minimise the risk of such an incident recurring.

Those were the management issues addressed by the Lawrence report. There was also the question of the handling of public information at the time of the incident, and I am sure that my hon. Friend was right to emphasise the necessity for any undertaker finding itself in that position to publish the facts immediately.

Any attempt by an undertaker, whether it is in the public or private sectors is irrelevant, to conceal facts operates against its own interests and, more importantly, against the public interest. To draw on an unrelated experience of mine as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Energy at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, that was precisely the case that my right hon. Friend sought to press on the Russian Government. Where there is a public health concern, it is in everyone's interests, including the undertaking's, that the facts are published immediately. That did not happen in this case and it is a cause of legitimate criticism which is accepted by the South West water authority.

It is important for us to control such criticism because, although it is true that the authority did not act as it should have acted at the time of the incident, that shortcoming was addressed within two months of the incident, and that addressing of the issue is now more than two years ago. So although there was a legitimate cause of concern at the time, it is no longer a ground for criticising the way in which any of those active or involved have operated since the publication of the Lawrence report and since the issues have been in the public arena.

However, as my hon. Friend correctly said, although the operational facts were published and were in the public domain relatively quickly—not quickly enough, but relatively quickly—after the incident, public concern continued to develop, and that led my predecessor to set up the medical inquiry under Professor Dame Barbara Clayton. That was established on 11 January 1989. That inquiry was set up to address the second nexus of issues, the public health questions, and to see whether those who drank the polluted water suffered a direct health consequence as a result of drinking it.

The committee that was set up by my predecessor had eminent membership, people who used their scientific experience to assess a specific scientific question. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is as important in assessing scientific cause and effect to insist on rigorous science as it is to insist on the availability of public information.

I believe that my predecessor, by setting up that committee and by staffing it with experts in the field, and then by insisting that Government comment on the subject, took account of the rigorous science that was produced by that committee, proceeded in the right way.

Public information must be available, but if we are talking about scientific cause and effect—about an assessment of whether the health of individuals was damaged by a particular incident—that is not a question on which a politician is qualified to comment. It is a question of medical fact. I am not a doctor, nor was my predecessor and, with respect to my hon. Friend, nor is he. We have no choice as politicians but to rely, in relation to technical and scientific questions, on the technical and scientific advice that we receive from the eminent bodies that we set up precisely for the purpose of giving us that advice.

My hon. Friend asked a series of questions. He asked whether there had been a cover-up, and I agree with the way in which he addressed that issue. As I said, everyone acknowledges that inadequate information was available in the first few weeks. I do not believe that is any longer the case. From the time of the publication of the Lawrence report, the commitment has been clear, both on operational and health questions, and that has been to ensure that the information available is made public. That has been a shared commitment by the Government, the health authority and the water authority, and any suggestion of a cover-up seems entirely misplaced.

My hon. Friend asked whether there should be a public inquiry. It is always too easy when faced with public concern to say that the only way to handle it is to set up another public inquiry. In this case, inquiries have sat and the facts—with a few exceptions to which I shall come—have been established. If the call is to set up a public inquiry, the first question to be addressed to those who espouse that call is: what will the public inquiry inquire into? I do not believe that any case can be made out for conducting a public inquiry into the operational issues arising from the incident, because there is no sphere of ignorance into which a public inquiry can inquire. The facts are known; they are in the public domain. There is no legitimate case for a public inquiry on those issues.

As to whether there is a case for a public inquiry into the medical issues, it seems at the very least highly arguable whether a public inquiry is a legitimate instrument for inquiring into medical matters. In any case, the bulk of the medical questions have already been addressed, although there are some follow-on questions arising as a result of the papers of the February seminar, which were published this week, and about which I shall say more later. There does not seem to be a case for a public inquiry into either operational or medical issues. If my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North wishes me to give an assurance that I shall not, on the facts currently available to me, establish an inquiry, I am happy to do so.

I have already referred to the document published this week, and it is important to be clear about that document. It is a publication containing papers that were presented to a seminar earlier this year to consider specific health trends following the Camelford incident. None of the papers in that document seeks to establish, or does establish, a casual link between the conditions described in the papers and the Camelford incident, but the papers pose questions that merit further examination.

The authors of many of the papers presented to the conference, while not claiming that their studies demonstrate a causal link between exposure to aluminium in water and the long-term medical conditions described in their papers, believe that some issues require further attention, particularly the serum aluminium results, which are thought interesting because they fit in with current understanding of how the body metabolises aluminium.

No clear explanation has been given and the matter could easily be worth further investigation. The issue needs confirmation and further study, as is usual with any new scientific data, especially where they conflict with established findings. The authors do not confirm that ill-health experienced by people in Camelford is due to aluminium in water or raised levels of aluminium in water, but it seems that those issues require further attention and the health authority has already said that it will set in motion the machinery for further examination of those issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North talked about the recommendations of the Clayton report. He rightly said that my predecessor has already committed the Government to accept that report's recommendations in full. He specifically drew my attention to recommendations 10 and 11, and asked what progress had been made on the setting up of those committees. My Department is currently completing consideration of the means to establish the organisation to provide authoritative medical and toxicological advice should any incident occur. We shall shortly be announcing the appointment of the national panel that was called for in those two recommendations. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that those two recommendations, and the other recommendations of the Clayton report, will be not only accepted, but acted on by the Government.

My hon. Friend talked about recommendation 13 and asked for some more follow-up work to be done to allay the fears that still exist. The papers that were published following the seminar in February raise specific medical questions on which further medical advice is necessary, and that medical advice will be sought. Such a specific scientific question that must be addressed on a rigorous scientific basis, and not by the bandying of political and public concerns through the media. Such questions will be addressed in the laboratory and not in the television studio.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North on the way in which he has represented his contituents' concerns, and I share his commitment to ensure that it is essential that all those involved are open with information concerning public health. There is no public interest to be served by concealment. I share also—

Madam Deputy Speaker