HC Deb 28 November 2001 vol 375 cc947-8W
Mr. Miller

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions what plans he has to restrict public access to information on major chemical sites held on public registers on security grounds. [19512]

Mr. Byers

I have today made a direction that all safety reports provided under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 should be excluded from the public registers maintained by the Competent Authority, that is the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agencies.

This is a sensible precautionary step taken on security grounds in the light of the current situation following the tragic events of 11 September. It is a temporary measure which will give time for sensitive information to be removed from existing safety reports, and the amended reports restored to the public register.

Hazardous facilities, with the potential for causing major off-site accidents are registered with the HSE, the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, under the COMAH Regulations. These include major chemical works, petrochemical and gas installations and high quantity users of flammable/explosive/toxic substances (e.g. chlorine at water treatment works).

The 430 most hazardous ("top-tier") sites have to prepare a detailed safety report describing the hazards presented and safety precautions taken. The regulations require safety reports for top-tier sites to be placed on public registers. The registers are maintained by Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency

At present only a small number of the safety cases are on the public register. The remainder would have been put on over the next few months. The Direction will enable security sensitive information to be identified and a second, more targeted Direction to be considered. This would allow the amended reports to be placed in the public arena.

It is important to note that the action on removing safety reports would not affect the arrangements in place to give the public vital safety instructions on such sites. People who are liable to be affected by an accident at a COMAH site are given specified information about the establishment, the major accident hazards and the safety measures that are in place. It is the site operator who has to provide this information independent of the safety report. This will ensure that the emergency services and the public know how to react in the event of an accident.