§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)
(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the explosion which occurred this morning in Putney.
§ The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)
The House will be aware that at 7.12 am this morning there was an explosion at Newnham house, Manor Fields estate, Putney, in London.
I have to inform the House, with great regret, that the latest information is that three people have died, six are unaccounted for, and a further two are in hospital.
Rescue operations are still in progress. Emergency services were quickly on the scene, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, in whose constituency the explosion occurred, has told me of the skill and bravery being shown by the rescue services working in the present dangerous conditions.
While it has not yet been possible to establish with certainty the cause of the explosion, all the evidence available at present points to it being a gas explosion. Responsibility for gas safety rests with the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. A team of inspectors from the executive reached the site early this morning. An investigation team from SE Gas is also already present at the scene. The Health and Safety Commission has now set up an inquiry under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, and I have asked the chairman to let me have a preliminary report at the earliest moment.
I know that the whole House will join me in extending our deepest sympathy to those bereaved, injured and homeless as a result of this tragic occurrence.
§ Mr. Soames
The House will appreciate that, apart from the great concern and interest felt by all hon. Members, I ask this question at the request, and on behalf, of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who because of his ministerial duties is unable to do so.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the inquiry by the Health and Safety Executive will be conducted with the greatest urgency and that the report will be published as soon as it is to hand? Will he also pass on to the emergency services the gratitude and admiration of hon. Members for the great skill and courage which they have shown?
§ Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)
May I on behalf of this side of the House express our deepest sympathy to the injured, to the relatives of those who have so tragically died and to the homeless as a result of this explosion? May I also express our appreciation and admiration for the immediacy of the response of the police and our emergency services who are continuing to deal with the emergency? Since the Secretary of State has said that the report will be published, may I ask him how long he believes the report will take to prepare and whether the interim report will lead to a statement being made by him?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is the first domestic gas explosion to be investigated by the Health 906 and Safety Executive since it took over responsibility in 1984? Will he ask the executive to look at the extent of gas explosions, despite the very good safety record of the gas board, during the last five years and to include an assessment in the final report?
§ Mr. King
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his expressions of sympathy and respect and of admiration for the emergency services. The House will know that they have been working throughout the morning in a very dangerous structure, with gas still escaping. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department himself told me of the great courage being shown by people who are working with great dedication in very dangerous circumstances. Therefore, the tribute paid by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend is well deserved.
Obviously it is not possible for me at this stage to answer the hon. Gentleman's two questions about whether it will be appropriate to make a further statement on any interim findings, but certainly I take note of his interest and of the concern of the House to be kept informed. I shall be anxious to ensure that that is done in the most appropriate way. In terms of the general safety record, it is worth remembering that there are 16 million gas consumers and that there are 9 million central heating gas installations. Last year there were 25 serious explosions. It is interesting to note that the figures show a steadily declining trend over the past three years and give some indication of generally very high standards of safety within the gas industry.
§ Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)
I extend my sympathy to the bereaved and the injured and also my admiration for those public services which have had to deal with the results of the explosion, but, when the inquiry is completed, could public authorities and private owners of blocks of flats where there are gas installations be requested to have a further look at their installations with a view to increasing awareness of the danger of such explosions? I believe that this is something which the House must take into consideration.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal and Social Democratic parties with the expressions of sympathy and the recognition of the work done by the emergency services. I am sure that all London Members will want to join me in saying that.
May I ask that the proper inquiry that is to be conducted by the Health and Safety Executive should be extended as soon as possible to look at the two clearly related matters which are often of great concern to all of us and to the public: first, the immediacy of the response to emergencies of the statutory undertakings—not only the gas board — and, secondly, the need for money to be made available where it is required for the maintenance of the infrastructure, in this case piping, if in bad weather such as that which we have experienced recently it is shown that that is a contributory factor to the inability to 907 deal quickly or properly with complaints about the gas service such as those which have been made in recent weeks, we understand, in Putney?
§ Mr. King
I would rather not comment on the latter part of what the hon. Gentleman said in advance of even the preliminary findings of any inquiry, but I should like to put it on record that my understanding is that a reported gas leak was recorded by SE Gas at 7.2 am, that the explosion occurred at 7.12 am, and that the response of SE Gas was so fast that a van was outside at the time of the explosion. There was some concern that the gas safety inspector was inside at the time of the explosion, but happily that proved not to be the case. However, that shows the speed with which the statutory undertakers responded to the call.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Will the Minister confirm that this is the second occasion within the past six months when Ministers have felt it necessary to praise the professionalism and integrity of public sector workers in non-profit making industries such as the National Health Service, the ambulance service and others connected with rescues? As Secretary of State for Employment, will he give a guarantee that when those people put in for a wage increase they will not be subjected to denigration and that if they have to go on strike to further that claim they will not be further attacked by the Government?