HL Deb 06 June 1985 vol 464 cc858-64

4.5 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place on water contamination in the Norman Shaw South building. The Statement is as follows:

"At 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday 4th June, 22 gallons of anti-corrosive fluid intended for the central heating tank were poured into a neighbouring tank serving the hand washbasins and water closets in the building. This was an inexcusable error by the Property Services Agency, for which I accept full responsibility.

"The fluid concerned was a proprietary acqueous solution containing: sodium nitrite: 30 per cent.; borax: 2 per cent.; caustic soda: 0.1 per cent.; mercapto-benzo-thi-azole: 0.5 per cent. The House will wish to know how this error occurred; what steps were taken to warn all concerned and to remove the contamination; and what is being done to prevent any recurrence. I have ordered a full investigation into all these matters and I will publish the report. In the meantime the House will wish to know what information is available to me.

"First, I would say that I was deeply concerned to learn yesterday that Mrs. Jacqueline Winter, the secretary to the Honourable Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill, had been taken seriously ill in her office in the Norman Shaw South building on Tuesday afternoon. It has since become clear that this was connected with her having drunk water from a tap at a washbasin there. I am happy to be able to tell the House that she has now been released from hospital and is recovering at home. I am sure I speak for the whole House in wishing Mrs. Winter a full and speedy recovery.

"At 2.50 p.m. on 4th June the Parliamentary Works Office had received a complaint that the water coming from the washbasin taps in the water closet adjacent to the office where Mrs. Winter works had a foul taste. A technical officer was sent at 3.30 to investigate by the Parliamentary Works Office. He was unable to find any obvious cause of the trouble and decided to seek specialist advice. Neither he nor the Parliamentary Works Office was aware at that time that Mrs. Winter had been taken ill. No connection was made between Mrs. Winter's illness and the water supply until 6.45 p.m., when a request for a water sample was received from the Westminster Hospital. The Parliamentary Works Officer gave his permission immediately on being made aware of this request. At the same time he ordered a detailed check to be made by his staff, who discovered the chemical contamination at 8.50 p.m.

"The water system was fully flushed five times during Tuesday night. The Government Chemist was called in first thing on Wednesday morning to test the water. It was found to be suitable for washing but chemicals were still found in concentrations which made it unsuitable for drinking.

"During Tuesday night warning notices had been put over a number of washbasin taps, and this process was completed on Wednesday morning. In addition, the House authorities made a warning announcement over the public address system in the building as staff arrived for work on Wednesday morning. The water system was again flushed twice last night. Tests by the Government Chemist this morning have shown a further marked reduction in the contamination, though not to a level which would be acceptable for drinking. Further cleansing action is being taken and the Government chemists will continue with their checks for as long as necessary.

"There are taps in the building marked 'drinking water', and these are not fed from the tank supplying the washbasins. Tests have confirmed that water from these taps has not been affected.

"I have no doubt that the urgent investigation which I have set in hand will suggest improvements investigation will cover the response to complaints which were made at that time.

"I have no doubt that the urgent investigation which I have set in hand will suggest improvements both in working practice and in communications between all concerned with the health and safety of those who work in these buildings. I can assure the House that the lessons learned from this unfortunate incident will be vigorously applied, and I apologise to the House and to the staff of the House for what has occurred."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend and I join with him in hoping that Mrs. Winter will completely recover from what must have been rather a dreadful ordeal. It should not have happened, particularly since we now understand that there may have been a similar previous occurrence. It is very alarming that the previous incident was not followed up and its cause established.

When this latest incident occurred it took a very long time to trace down the fact that the water was contaminated; and we are not told whether, when the contamination was discovered at 8.50 p.m. that evening, a warning was issued. As your Lordships are well aware, that is the middle of our working day, and presumably the building was full of people who were using that water until such time as the House rose.

Supplies of pure drinking water should be more readily available. For example, where in this part of the Palace can one find supplies of pure drinking water? None is available to me. There are no taps marked "drinking water" in any of the ladies' facilities and I hope that the gentlemen are a little more fortunate in the provision made for them. What is in the jugs here for us to drink on the Table? Do the contents of those jugs come from a tap marked "drinking water" or from a washbasin tap? I can assure your Lordships that it tastes very nasty, wherever it comes from.

Conditions in the Palace generally are bad for Members but they are even worse for staff. Although I appreciate the feelings of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, who wishes that we did not have so many Statements, I hope he did not intentionally pick this particular Statement to wish away. It seems to me that in matters concerning our staff we are not always as careful as we might be. Is the Minister satisfied that the standards of hygiene set throughout the building by the PSA are satisfactory? Are they high enough?

Because we are in a palace the public health inspectors who would normally check standards are not available to us, in the sense that they cannot enter this place without invitation. Do the Government not agree that we should now invite the inspectors to enter the Palace and check our standards? It seems to me that this is an example we should be prepared to set. We look forward to the report, though I imagine that we shall not have a chance to debate it. I hope that, when it is made available, with it will come assurances that such a thing will never happen again.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The undertaking that there is to be an urgent investigation into all the matters concerned is reassuring. I imagine, as the noble Baroness said, that there probably will not be a case for a debate on this matter in your Lordships' House. Nevertheless I hope that the appropriate committee will consider the matter very fully when the report is available, and will in turn report to your Lordships' House.

This is not the moment to ask specific questions which will undoubtedly be asked, and will all be answered, in the course of the investigation. I should just like to inject two more questions for that particular investigation to consider and which are not, it seems to me, satisfactorily covered in the Statement.

The Statement reported that the parliamentary works officer gave his permission for a water sample to be provided immediately upon being made aware of the request. I have reason to believe that there was some delay at that stage. I do not in any way doubt the truth of the Statement or cast any aspersions on the parliamentary works officer. But there could have been a delay, of course, before the request reached him. I hope that point will be looked into.

I also take up the point made by the noble Baroness concerning the alerting of staff. This is extremely important. The point has been made to me by a number of staff that the mechanics for dealing with this kind of matter have in the past been proved not to be all that good. When there have been bomb scares or similar occasions the fullest use has not been made, as it should be, of our public address system which is an instantaneous way of informing practically everyone who works in the building. It appears that the public address system was not used at 8.50 p.m. on Tuesday evening in the Norman Shaw building when surely it should have been. That is another matter which I feel the investigation should look into, and I have no doubt that it will.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol and to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for their reception of what I can only describe as a very serious Statement indeed. As the Statement makes clear, my honourable friend—not my right honourable friend, as I perhaps said when introducing the Statement; it was made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, rather than by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State—is having all these questions investigated as a matter of great urgency. He will have prepared a report of that investigation. The report will be placed in the Library of both Houses, and he and I undertake to draw your Lordships' attention, through the Official Report, to the depositing of the report.

I now turn to those specific points raised by the noble Baroness and noble Lord which I can answer immediately. First, the noble Baroness asked about the water in our jugs and carafes. I can confirm that these are filled and refilled from a tap that is actually marked "drinking water" and so there is no likelihood of a repetition of this particular incident in this part of the Palace. Secondly, there is a public works officer permanently on duty in the Palace every moment that either House is sitting. My immediate answer to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, is that that officer is empowered to take immediate action the moment that anything of this nature, or of any other nature affecting the building, is brought to his attention. Of course, he does just that.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, there are just two points I should like to raise. The first concerns the drinking water. It is of course normal for drinking water to come direct from the main and not from the roof tanks. Can part of the investigation assure us that, for cooking and everything else, there is adequate drinking water available direct from the main? One has a suspicion that that may not be the case.

Certainly I fancy that the water in the jugs in our own gentlemen's toilets, even if it originally comes from a drinking water tap, when used up on a hot day is replaced with water from the washbasin taps—or that Peers drink direct from those taps, as I have frequently done.

My second point is that in all old buildings the water supply and piping tends to grow rather like Topsy. One would like an assurance that there are adquate plans of the water system and that people working on it see those plans before they carry out any important work. This means that somebody who is used to the system and who knows it well ought always to be present when a new plumber is engaged or when major work is being carried out. Will those two points be borne in mind?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, of course I very naturally appreciate the concern of the House that such an unfortunate incident should not happen within the Palace of Westminster. However, perhaps I may be permitted to remind the House that the Statement concerns the Norman Shaw South building, which is not, technically at any rate, a part of the Palace of Westminster. So far as that building is concerned, I can confirm that the drinking water comes from a rising main. I would expect the position in this Palace to be the same, but, if I am wrong, I will make sure that that information goes into the report to which I have referred.

The noble Viscount asked about the age of the building. I am afraid that, offhand, I do not know the age of the Norman Shaw South building but, of course, this building is considerably older. The plans of the building do, of course, include full plans of the pipework.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord deal with the question asked by my noble friend about the public health inspectorate; namely, that the inspectorate visits this building only by invitation because it is a Royal Palace? Will the noble Lord confirm that and tell the House how many invitations have been extended to the public health inspectorate over, say, the past five years?

Secondly, on the question of drinking water in this building, is the noble Lord now saying that it is unsafe for noble Lords and members of the staff to drink water from the taps in the rooms of this House apart from the taps marked "drinking water"? If that is the case, it is certainly something I knew nothing about, but I have been here for only six years and perhaps noble Lords who have been here for a very long time are aware of it. Will the noble Lord clarify that matter? Indeed, will he be good enough to tell us where this all-important tap marked "drinking water" is sited?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, there is a presumption in this country that all water is safe unless one is told that it is not safe. In other words, it is not unsafe to drink any water in the Palace of Westminster provided it comes out of a tap. However, the age of the piping is such that it is always recommended—as, indeed, it is in one's private home—to drink water from a rising main; but this is by no means totally necessary.

The answer to the question put by the noble Baroness, and prompted by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, is that public health inspectors are not invited into the Palace. The task is done by the Property Services Agency's own staff which, I have already said, is permanently on duty in the Palace. That is the system that pertains in all Government buildings.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that there are two qualities of water in this House: one from the tap marked "drinking water" and the other from the remaining taps in the building? He is saying that both are safe but one is safer than the other.

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, that is not what I am saying. There are two forms of water supply within this House. One form comes out of the taps in the washbasins, which comes from a water tank situated on the roof of the building, and the other form comes in the normal way from the rising main.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that in a plumbing system so bizarre that access to the storage water tanks can be confused with that of the central heating system almost anything can happen?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said earlier: we are not talking about this building but about the Norman Shaw South building.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, may I again return to the subject of drinking water and raise one point? As one who has been concerned with the model by-laws for water, may I point out that drinking from a tap which is connected to a roof tank is, in fact, discouraged because if the tank is not adequately covered one gets bird, mice and other droppings in it? Therefore, the water purity depends partially on what protection there is on the tank. Can we at least be assured that the water tanks are adequately and properly covered so that no extraneous material can get into them—unless further drinking water supplies and taps are to be installed in this building?

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, before the Minister replies, and to give him time to reply, can he explain one point in the Statement which was not clear? Was this material, which was accidentally put into the tanks, put in by a contractor or by people employed by the Palace of Westminster? Can the Minister explain—which I do not think he did—where precisely are the taps in this House which are marked "drinking water"? I have been in this House for only 21 years and I cannot recall seeing them, although I am sure they are here.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in answer to the multiple supplementary questions of the noble Viscount and the noble Baroness I thank the noble Viscount for explaining the position. I regret that as regards the Norman Shaw South building I have not been able to visit the tank this morning, and therefore I do not know whether or not it is covered.

With regard to the question from the noble Baroness, I know of only one tap in the building marked "drinking water" but that may be because I do not go into every part of the building. That tap is in the Peers' toilets off the Peers' Lobby. Whether there is a tap in the rooms that the noble Baroness is accustomed to using I would not know.

The noble Baroness also asked who was responsible for putting this material into the tanks. When I was preparing to deliver the Statement I asked exactly the same question. It was a direct employee of the Property Services Agency and not a contract employee.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, if this Statement refers only to the Norman Shaw South building, why is it being repeated in this Chamber?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as was explained after Question Time, that is not a matter for me. I was asked to repeat the Statement, and therefore I have done so.

Lord Somers

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the drinking tap in the room off the Peers' Lobby. I have often noticed that tap but it is a curious fact that it is impossible to turn it on. Can the noble Lord say why?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I cannot say why.