HC Deb 06 November 2001 vol 374 cc215-20

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

10.31 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate, in which I want to call for the closure of a dangerous chemical works in my constituency following an explosion at the site. I want to call also for a public inquiry into the incident at the site, and into the performance of the relevant agencies in monitoring the site's activities.

First, I should like to thank the Minister for the Environment, who has been very helpful and has met me several times to discuss the matter. He cannot be present tonight, unavoidably, but I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who will respond to the debate and who I know is up to speed with the issue.

Cleansing Services Group is a chemical treatment plant. Incredibly, it was built on a flood-plain in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire, in my constituency. The company has been a very bad neighbour. It has shown a disregard for the environment and local residents, and for the area's amenities. For many years, bad odours have escaped from the site, and heavy lorries have troubled neighbours.

Many complaints have been made to the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the county council about the site's activities over the years. The fact that those complaints have been largely ignored has given rise to this debate. I shall describe the incident that took place, and its seriousness, in a few minutes. If the agencies had listened to the complaints and acted accordingly, it is possible that the incident would not have happened.

I visited the site twice. On the first visit, I was denied a tour, and was shown only certain areas on my second visit. I was not shown the dangerous area, but I came away with stinging eyes and a tight chest. I reported that to the agencies concerned.

An employee at the CSG site, Kevin Harris, was sacked for refusing to carry out certain dangerous duties. He took his case to an industrial tribunal, and won. Again, the relevant agencies were aware of this.

Similar complaints were made over many years. Just over a year ago, on 30 October 2000, a major explosion took place at the site. That surprised no one, but it affected a great many people. Two people had to be detained in hospital and there were many on-going health problems. People in neighbouring villages were affected. Large parts of Sandhurst village were evacuated, and people had to stay in hotels for many days.

If that was not bad enough, the entire site flooded—I noted earlier that it was situated on a flood-plain—and a major clean-up operation ensued. Worryingly, Gloucestershire fire and rescue service said that it would have been unable to tackle the fire if flood and fire had coincided.

Furthermore, the acting chief officer of Gloucestershire's fire and rescue service wrote to the chief executive of the Environment Agency on 9 November 2000. He stated that should a further incident occur at the site, GFRS will need to take a decision whether, in the circumstances, to expose fire fighters to extraordinary risks. No assurance can therefore be given that GFRS will commit its fire fighters to dealing with an incident at the site, if the current hazardous situation is not cured by the Environment Agency under its powers". There can be no doubt that the responsibility for the explosion lies with the company. That site is a terrible place to work, or even to visit. The company has shown scant regard for the community, and certain staff at the site have shown great arrogance. One manager told me that he did not even know that the site was on a flood-plain—an incredible statement. The company should be investigated, especially with regard to the operation of that site, and the site should be closed down by the Environment Agency or by the Minister. That is the first point that I want to make in this Adjournment debate.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a CSG site in my constituency, just south of Newbury. Given that he has just said that the company is so irresponsible that its site in his constituency should be closed, does he agree that it would be wrong for the site in my constituency to change from being a comparatively low-level waste site to one that deals with toxic waste, with all the dangers to my constituents that he has unfortunately met in his?

Mr. Robertson

I certainly agree, and if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall make a main point about that in a moment.

The second point that I want to make is that the agencies—the Environment Agency, the HSE and the county council, all of which are paid by the taxpayer to protect us—are supposed to monitor the site, but they have singularly failed to do so, despite having received very many warnings about it.

The main purpose of this Adjournment debate is to call for a public inquiry into the incident and into the performance of the agencies' monitoring of the site beforehand and, indeed, afterwards. I have met the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment a number of times, and I have even raised the issue with the Prime Minister, but, as yet, no decision has been made on a public inquiry, even though a year has passed. I should like to consider the performance of the agencies to explain why such an inquiry is necessary.

The Environment Agency was warned over many years by many people—residents, councillors and myself—that the site was dangerous, but it took inadequate notice and inadequate action, seemingly making excuses for the company. Since the explosion, the Environment Agency seems interested only in avoiding a court case. It did issue a suspension notice, but it has recently replaced it with a more lenient one.

Again, to quote the acting chief officer of the Gloucestershire fire and rescue service, the Environment Agency was "pedestrian"; delayed providing info to gold control", which tried to control the incident; were looking to protect their corner"; erred on the side of their own safety"; demonstrated a great naivety"; and had a primary concern that they will lose a case in the courts". Those are quite damning words.

The Environment Agency was warned many times of the dangers of the site, but, amazingly, it now seems to be allowed to investigate itself. It is also being allowed to investigate the site. It therefore has a disincentive to discover the full extent of problems, because it was responsible for monitoring the site. That totally disserves the public and taxpayers. The Environment Agency should be subjected to a full, independent public inquiry.

In 1978, the county council granted planning permission for the treatment of waste oils and oily wastes—a change of use, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). The council now admits that without planning permission, unauthorised change of use for the site, from a plant for the treatment of waste oils and oily wastes to an integrated waste chemical transport plant has occurred". Instead of waste oils and oily wastes, Cleansing Services Group has stored BSE-contaminated material, highly flammable chemicals, corrosive chemicals, irritants, oxidising chemicals, explosive chemicals, toxic chemicals, chemicals that release toxic gases and carcinogenic chemicals. Yet no one noticed, or did anyone?

The county council became aware of the problem in 1998—two years before the explosion took place—yet no action was taken. When did the Environment Agency know? How was it able to continue to issue operating licences when the company was in such serious breach of its planning permission? Did not the Environment Agency and the county council ever talk to each other? I understand that the county council is now to be investigated by the local government ombudsman, but it too should be subject to the rigours of a public inquiry.

The HSE was aware of the incident involving the sacked employee, but it was described by the Gloucestershire fire and rescue service as being "less than helpful" and, amazingly, the service said that they engaged in dubious health and safety practices. I am afraid that the health authority has also not covered itself in glory in most people's eyes following the incident.

The Environment Agency and the HSE have been commissioned to produce reports, but so what? People will not and cannot be satisfied if agencies are allowed to investigate themselves—it is a joke. A full independent public inquiry is the only way to investigate fully the incident and the performance of the agencies.

It could be that the agencies need more powers or it could be that they did not exercise their powers properly. If there is not a full inquiry the question remains: are these quangos any use at all if they perform like this? Either way, the residents of my constituency have a right to know the truth and have a right to expect the agencies to do the jobs that they are paid to do.

Internal investigations cannot be the sole method of inquiry. Indeed, I understand that the Government are rightly considering how to make the investigations of complaints against the police more independent. I applaud that strategy, but I ask the Minister to apply the same philosophy in this case; otherwise people's faith—or lack of faith—in the democratic process will be further frustrated and their concern about government by quango will be fuelled.

People see nothing as being anyone's fault any more; no one wants to take responsibility for anything. On a wider point, I suggest that that is one of the reasons for voter apathy, which is dangerous.

I have raised a big issue that affected my area greatly. I presented a petition to Parliament with 2,100 signatures, calling for the site to be closed. The effectiveness of the agencies is a wider matter.

To summarise, the site should be closed and a full independent public inquiry should be announced. At the time of the incident, all six Gloucestershire MPs representing three political parties called for such an inquiry. Two of them are here tonight. [HON. MEMBERS: "Three."] Three of them are here, so all three political parties are presented. I assume that they have not changed their minds about calling for a public inquiry. I ask the Minister to announce that action tonight.

10.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on obtaining the debate and on the way in which he has made the case on behalf of his constituents. I know that there is considerable concern about the company. As he rightly said, we are joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made pertinent points about the activities of the company in his area, and I shall come to them shortly. We are also joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), whose constituency contains Flixborough, where a major chemical works was involved in a serious fire and disaster some years ago. He will be aware of the problems involved in this case.

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I confess that I was surprised to learn that the company did not show him around the facility. That was not an unreasonable request for the local Member of Parliament to make, and I would have thought that it would have been met.

The fire was serious, but its exact cause is not known. It is likely to have been caused by a chemical reaction or, possibly, even by arson. I am well aware of the floods that took place in the area, and I visited it. At that time, the issue of the floods and the factory was raised with me, and this case is an example of the need for the careful consideration of developments on flood-plains. Even though permission was granted for this development, I hope that the lessons will not be forgotten when other developments are considered.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the company is under investigation by the Environment Agency and the HSE. Its operating licence has been suspended and the Environment Agency intends to modify CSG's operating licence. I accept what the hon. Member for Newbury said about how some of the issues raised relate to his area, and local planning authorities, the Environment Agency and the HSE need to examine them carefully before the company's activities are extended. I am sure that that will happen.

Mr. Rendel

The Minister may not know that, sadly, planning permission for the site in my constituency was granted just two days before the explosion in Sandhurst. It is now a matter for the Environment Agency.

Mr. Morley

I understand that planning permission was granted on appeal in 1996. Nevertheless, the issues are important and I am sure that the Environment Agency will take them into account because it is responsible for the operating licence.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who commissioned three reports that have been published. The first was an interim report on a joint investigation by the agency and the HSE under COMAH—the control of major accident hazards regulations. The final version of the report, with a report on prosecution, is expected shortly. He will appreciate that the investigation is complex. I am glad that it has received the support and co-operation of local residents who are worried about the problem. My hon. Friends are also concerned, and it is right that those are taken into account.

The second report was the final report of a quality assurance review of the agency's regulatory actions in relation to the site. The agency has advised that it is on schedule to implement the actions arising from that report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that. The third commissioned report to be put in place is the final report of a review that was carried out by the HSE as part of its major incident handling procedures. My right hon. Friend has taken those significant actions in response to the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

I fully understand the deep concerns of local residents about the incidents at the site and their desire for a public inquiry. The Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are considering that in the light of the latest progress report into the joint investigation of the incidents by the Environment Agency and the HSE, and an announcement will be made as soon as possible.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

Does the Minister accept that the Environment Agency has a great disincentive to discover too much about the site because it was responsible for monitoring it? He should not base a decision on what the agency discovers. The analogy that I gave of his Government's concern about the police investigating themselves is perhaps a better guide.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about self-regulating organisations. However, in the Environment Agency's defence, I was greatly involved in the problem of flooding. Although its regulation is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, I am aware that it identified the drums of BSE-contaminated waste. It made that fact public, took immediate action to make them safe and suspended the licence. Although he is entitled to raise those concerns, the agency's response was rapid and efficient. We should acknowledge what it did to secure the site and ensure that his constituents' interests were safeguarded from a potential threat.

I accept that there are issues that need to be examined carefully. I know that the Environment Agency intends to modify CSG's licence so that there will be no use of the transfer station, which is where the fire occurred, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The company will not be allowed to use the large and small treatment wells until it has met new licence conditions. Those activities will not be allowed to commence unless the company can show that it can do so without giving rise to pollution of the environment, harm to human health or serious detriment to the amenity of the locality, with particular emphasis on fire and flooding. The hon. Gentleman will know that full recommencement of activities has not been approved by the Environment Agency.

In reply to the intervention by the hon. Member for Newbury, I can say that the points that he made are exactly those that I would expect the agency to consider in relation to any operating licence.

We have been assured that the Environment Agency understands the concern felt by the local community about the resumption of any activity on the site. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole and for Forest of Dean have made clear people's concern about earlier activities. The agency also understands residents' lack of confidence about what has happened to date. It is consulting widely on its proposals to ensure that the views and concerns of local residents are taken into account.

We understand that there are legitimate concerns about what happened on the CSG site. That is under detailed investigation by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. Powers to revoke site licences are limited, and a licence can be revoked only if the holder is convicted of an environmental offence, if the agency no longer considers the person to be fit and proper to run the site or if pollution or harm to human health cannot be avoided by modifying the licence conditions.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury has, rightly, asked pertinent questions about whether those conditions can be met. The agency needs to take those issues seriously. I am sure that his concerns will be reflected in the investigation, and taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in deciding whether a public inquiry should take place.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.