§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fallon.]3.35 am
§ Mr. John Ward (Poole)
May I first thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment for being present to answer the debate at this late hour?
Although the reasons for the debate are mainly concerned with an incident that took place in my constituency, the lessons learnt from that incident could have much wider application on a national basis in ensuring that other towns do not have to go through the same experience as some of my constituents did last June.
It would be helpful if I set the scene and gave the background to the fire and explosion which took place in BDH Limited's chemical works at West Quay road in Poole on 21 June this year. The fire broke out in a building used as a chemical store at the factory. The building was constructed in 1982 and was divided into three sections —one used for storing oxidising substances, a larger area used as a main chemical store and a smaller area used as a flammable solids store. The three sections were separated by concrete block walls. Immediately outside the oxidising substances store was a bonded and protected area used for the storage of flammable liquids in drums.
At about 6.15 in the evening of 21 June a fire was discovered in the oxidising store and it took hold of that area rapidly and spread to the adjacent area containing flammable liquids.
Many hon. Members will have seen the television news reports of the fire, showing a large fireball accompanied by a plume of yellow-brown smoke rising over the old town section of Poole. In addition, some of the drums of chemical liquid exploded and travelled up to 300 ft in the air before falling back to the ground, some within the factory premises and others outside. At the peak of the emergency, some 100 firemen were in attendance, together with police and ambulance services and other local organisations.
Because it was not known precisely what chemicals were involved in the blaze— I shall refer to this later—a decision was made by the police and fire brigade to evacuate more than 2,500 people from the area and emergency centres were opened at Poole arts centre and the Henry Harbin school for their accommodation. This was the biggest mass evacuation in the United Kingdom since the second world war. The residents were not allowed to return to their homes until 5.30 the following morning.
The police and fire brigade officers who took the decision to order the evacuation are to be praised for their clear thinking. The back-up services which ensured that the operation was carried out smoothly and without undue distress to those concerned were a model of how such an operation should proceed. Again, I shall refer later to their activities.
I visited the site the morning after the fire and again during the clear-up operations and was impressed with the quiet efficiency of all concerned, but I have to acknowledge that there was also a sense of profound relief that what could have been a major disaster had, with a certain amount of good fortune and a great deal of skill from the emergency services, been contained so that most of the damage done was to property rather than people. If I do not describe the events of the night in great detail, it is 994 because they are already on the record and I believe that we now have to examine them to learn what action we can take to prevent such an occurrence in the future, either in Poole or elsewhere.
Before leaving the events of 21 June, it would be wrong if I did not put on record the admiration and gratitude which all the citizens of Poole feel for the many people who helped that evening. I have already mentioned the police and the fire brigade. Others who gave valuable assistance were Poole district council staff, the county emergency planning officer and his team, the staff of the Poole arts centre, who opened their doors to the evacuees, and the cast of the show which was appearing at the arts centre at the time, the New Vic theatre company, who put on a free show for the evacuees in the arts centre starting at midnight. The WRVS lived up to the high esteem in which we have always held them, as did the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross.
Poole general hospital staff were both helpful and co-operative, as they always are, and so, too, were the bus operators who helped with the evacuation. Wessex Water was immediately on hand to ensure that drinking water supplies were protected and that there was no pollution of Poole harbour, and the Poole harbour commissioners rendered valuable assistance. The gas and electricity services worked tirelessly to make apparatus safe and to ensure supplies, and the Royal Marines, Poole, helped by providing such things as bedding material for those evacuated to the Henry Harbin school. It was a model of what should take place in a well-planned emergency operation of that nature, and I hope that any other local authority in the country which has any doubts about the need for good, planned emergency procedures to deal with such incidents will learn from the lessons of Poole.
The Health and Safety Executive has conducted an inquiry at the request of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I should like to refer to some of the conclusions that it reached, which were published in the form of a summary of its inquiry report, with a press release, on 17 October. The primary cause of the fire appears to have been a lack of proper segregation of chemicals in the store concerned, which led to a rapid and violent spread of the fire. It has been the practice of BDH for a number of years to accept out-of-time and unwanted chemicals in even very small quantities from customers and to dispose of them as a service to those customers.
It appears that some of the chemicals which had been returned and awaited sorting were not compatible and should therefore have been separated immediately, but that was not done. Because of the massive destruction in the immediate area of the fire, the Health and Safety Executive was unable positively to identify the cause of the fire, but the summary of its report suggests that a probable cause was the leakage of strongly corrosive substances on to organic materials, or exothermic decomposition of stored material. It concludes that incompatible materials had been placed too close to each other because the sorting system for returned chemicals had become overloaded. That probably resulted in the fire which took hold extremely rapidly and with violent consequences. The fire penetrated the exterior walls of the immediate store and overheated drums of flammable liquid stored outside the oxidising store. The HSE also said that the decision to locate oxidising materials close to flammable liquids was flawed because, although the building was originally built 995 to the building regulations in force at the time, it did not conform to Health and Safety Executive guidance issued subsequently.
The HSE concludes that the storage practices adopted by the firm failed to cope with the problems created by the need to store and dispose of such a vast range of chemicals. It says that the public were not at risk from the drums of cyanide stored elsewhere in the building.
The HSE supports the police and fire brigade decision to evacuate the public because there was a mixture of a wide range of chemicals, some of which might have been hazardous and some of which were unidentified at the time of the fire.
I should like my hon. Friend to comment on the following matters. The full report has not been made public. Although I am sure that the HSE has done its best to provide an accurate summary, like all summaries it leaves a number of points unanswered, and I urge my hon. Friend, even at this late stage, to use his best endeavours to have the full report made public.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not underestimate the real sense of fear that will persist in the old town of Poole until the rumours which feed on part information are countered. I believe that my constituents are as entitled as anybody else to know exactly what the HSE inquiry revealed, whether or not it proves embarrassing to other parties. I am supported in this view by Poole borough council which, at its meeting a few hours ago, expressed its disappointment that the full report has not been published and gave its full support to my request to my hon. Friend the Minister.
My hon. Friend will be aware that on 15 July I asked him whether he would ensure that the results of the inquiry conducted by the HSE would be made public and whether he would set up a public inquiry. He said that a summary of the results would be made public. That has been done. He also said:I do not propose to set up a public inquiry since this would be unlikely to identify any causes or contributory factors which will not be identified by the HSE investigation." —[Official Report, 15 July 1988; Vol. 137, c. 383.]I tend to agree with the last sentence of my hon. Friend's reply, but I hope that he will understand that the summary of the report issued by the HSE prompts a number of questions and it has certainly not satisfied members of the Poole residents association, who are still calling for a public inquiry. They have told me that they consider that there are questions still to be asked which are not answered in the HSE summary. It is ironic to consider that, if lives had been lost and we had had a tragedy instead of a serious incident, there would almost certainly have been a public inquiry and all the evidence which is at present being withheld from public examination would have been given in open court.
Given that, so far, the report has not been made public, the summary issued by the HSE prompts me to make a number of observations.
A brief assurance is given in the summary that there was no danger to local people from cyanide and a reference is made to what is said to be a similar incident at River road, Barking in 1980. Frankly, without further information, that is not reassuring. Can we know whether the conditions were precisely the same, whether the dangers were similar and, in particular, whether, if cyanide needs to 996 be kept on that site in Poole, as I understand it may well need to be for some industrial processes, there was at any time any risk that it would affect the local population?
The HSE summary says that off-site damage was limited. I hope that that does not mean that it has ignored the fact that at another time of day, for instance, in the rush hour, when perhaps the bridge connecting old Poole with Hamworthy was open and with much more traffic on West street, there could have been considerable off-site damage with catastrophic consequences. It was also fortunate that many of the surrounding office buildings were empty at the time and even the wind direction that evening helped to limit the effects of the fire. I therefore regard the fact that off-site damage was limited as due to luck rather than skill.
Referring again to good fortune, the HSE summary says that the vast majority of fire brigade water was contained in surface water holding tanks and these presumably are part of the Wessex Water drainage system. No thought seems to have been given to what would have happened if there had been heavy rain before the fire or if the tide had been at a different state. In those circumstances, can we be reassured that harbour pollution, with its effect on both the amenities and the fishing industry in Poole, would not have been much worse?
The HSE summary refers to the fact that the building concerned met the building regulations at the time it was built, but there appears to have been no requirement to update it if the building regulations changed, and that is perhaps understandable. What is not understandable is that, subsequent to the construction of the building, the Health and Safety Executive issued guidelines which underlined the need for considerably more protection against fire than the building had at the time of the fire. I would ask my hon. Friend what provision there is for ensuring that HSE guidelines are complied with and, perhaps more important, what provision there is for ensuring that HSE guidelines are applied retrospectively in such areas where there is a danger to the public from the storage of toxic and flammable materials.
Although I understand the policy that it is for the commercial organisation concerned to devise and implement its own safety requirements, these should surely need HSE approval. The summary of the report prompts me to ask whether there is sufficient supervision in sufficient detail by the HSE. The summary of the HSE report recommends that all chemical companies ensure that their segregation policy for chemicals is clearly set out and fully implemented. Does this imply that there is room for doubt about whether this occurs as a matter of course? If so, surely everyone would agree that it is a matter for major public concern. My hon. Friend may well consider that this would lead to additional costs on HSE expenditure, but, with all the worries about environmental pollution at the present time, it would seem that there s a case for looking closely at the manning of this important Government agency.
I now turn to the actions of BDH since the fire. I should explain that it is a reputable firm employing several hundred people in Poole on two sites and that the firm has been a valued member of the Poole community since 1942. Immediately after the HSE press conference on 17 October, the company issued a statement in which it went further than the requirements now laid upon it by the Health and Safety Executive. It has agreed to remove all the chemicals arising from production from the West Quay 997 road site, and in future chemicals returned from its customers for disposal will go to other depots or be transferred straight to waste disposal sites. I believe that that will go a long way towards meeting the anxieties of my constituents.
The company has also agreed that the open drum store, which was the immediate cause of much of the damage and spread of fire, will be removed to another site and kept in a specially constructed store which will be fitted with automatic fire extinguishing equipment.
The company is preparing a detailed and comprehensive storage policy document, which I am sure it will discuss with the Health and Safety Executive, and any reconstruction of the chemical store which is needed will take place in accordance with conditions to be agreed with the Health and Safety Executive.
I believe that, following the fire, the company has behaved responsibly, and that it will continue to be a valued employer in Poole for many years. However, there are a number of lessons which I believe may well have application not only in Poole but throughout the country. I have already queried whether the HSE resources are sufficient to carry out the important task of ensuring that chemicals and toxic substances, particularly those stored in urban areas, are properly stored and recorded. It is essential that a list which is detailed and comprehensible to people other than chemists must he immediately available at every chemical store, for use by the police and fire brigade.
I believe that when guidance books are issued by the Health and Safety Executive which, in the light of experience, call for a tightening of regulations, some further consideration must be given to how all users of chemicals and toxic materials are informed and, more important, how the Health and Safety Executive will ensure that the new safety regulations are applied retrospectively. I have already referred to the value of proper pre-planned emergency procedures for such events as took place in Poole on 21 June. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his influence to ensure that all other local authorities learn the lesson.
As our chemistry research finds new materials, life will become increasingly complicated in the area of industrial safety, and I hope that my hon. Friend will think it worthwhile that the chemical industries and their trade associations should, together with representatives of the Government, continuously monitor safety requirements, particularly as they are applied in urban areas such as Poole.
I have spoken of the luck and good fortune associated with the outcome of the events in Poole on 21 June, but I remind the Minister that 2,500 of my constituents were evacuated from their homes late at night, experiencing considerable fear and distress, and I hope that he will appreciate that they will not be satisfied until the full facts surrounding the incident are made available to them. I therefore once again plead with the Minister that he should seek, with the agreement of the company if possible, to ensure that the whole report is made public. I believe that, following their experiences on 21 June, my constituents deserve nothing less.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) on bringing this important issue before the House—despite the eccentric hour at which he has managed to do it.
The fire at the British Drug House plant in Poole on 21 June was a serious incident and I fully appreciate the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed so eloquently. He was extremely prompt about contacting my office and making clear his worries; his constituents need be in no doubt about that, or about the steps that he has taken to bring the matter to my attention, to ensure that such an incident never occurs again.
I will do my best to return to my hon. Friend's detailed points, but first I will need to say a word about the regime of control measures covering the use of chemicals at work, because it is necessary to understand the context in which these events took place.
To say that life in an industrial society involves coping with processes and substances of great complexity and potential danger may be atruism, but it is an accurate statement for all that. Industrialisation brings great benefits, but at the same time it poses great hazards and risks. Fuels, for example, are a potent source of energy, but are also potentially dangerous because of their highly flammable nature. By the same token, no one seriously doubts the need for effective pesticides, but their very effectiveness derives from their toxicity.
The key issue which my hon. Friend has brought before us is how to enjoy the benefits of these substances and processes without putting in undue jeopardy the safety and health of the workers who produce and handle them or of the people, like those living near chemical plants or warehouses, who will be at risk if things go wrong. A balanced approach is required, and the framework for achieving that balance must be enshrined in law. It must maintain essential levels of safety, but avoid imposing unnecessary rigidities and costs.
The fundamental law in this area is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It places general duties on employers, and anyone else who is in control of a work activity, to safeguard the health and safety at work of all employees, and to ensure that the public are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. These general but very powerful obligations are further strengthened by a number of more specific regulations, many of which directly address chemical safety. Within that framework it is especially important to have specific systems of control for places where hazardous chemicals are concentrated in significant quantities.
Our approach—both domestically and in Europe—is to identify which substances—and, indeed, what quantities of a particular substance—are a hazard or risk, and then to set out the necessary precautions. Central to that approach are the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984, which implement a European Community directive. Those apply to sites with the greatest potential danger and impose some stringent requirements. They include the submission to the Health and Safety Executive of detailed safety cases analysing hazards and risks, the preparation of emergency plans to protect people both on and off the site in the case of a serious accident, and furnishing information to people living nearby who might be affected by a major accident.
999 In addition, the regulations are now to be amended to apply to a greatly increased range of places, including many warehouses containing packaged goods.
As I have said, the regulations apply only to workplaces handling the most dangerous substances, but the Notification of Installations Handling Hazardous Substances Regulations 1982 apply to a larger group of chemicals and prohibit any person from using them unless he has notified the Health and Safety Executive at least three months previously. There are also other important statutes, like the legislation on fire precautions and pollution control and the town and country planning legislation, which serve to protect people from the hazards of chemicals.
The Health and Safety Commission is shortly to consider some possible further regulations that would require the notification of sites containing an aggregate quantity of 25 tonnes or more of dangerous substances and the erection of warning signs. Those regulations would assist enforcing authorities and the fire services in carrying out inspections, and most importantly would alert firemen to the presence of dangerous substances when they arrive on site, which is one of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. Taken together, the regulations represent a system of graduated response, according to the severity of the hazard. They seek to give enforcing authorities and the emergency services the right degree of control, information and capability.
I hope that it is clear, from what I have said about the impending extension of major hazards legislation and the proposed regulations on notification and markings of sites, that we are far from complacent in this area. However, while the legal framework is essential, obviously it cannot be the whole story. What the law can do is to set conditions and make provision for enforcement, but what really matters are the working practices where chemicals are made, combined, stored or handled.
It is, of course, vital that those dealing with hazardous chemicals have a full understanding of their properties, not only on their own, but as they might interact. Chemicals that may be relatively harmless when stored separately can produce devastating effects in combination with others. That makes the proper segregation of groups of chemicals and the provision of fire resistant structures absolutely essential. Those, of course, were factors in the fire at BDH Ltd in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Having set out the general framework briefly, I should now like to address some of my hon. Friend's more specific concerns. The House has already heard some of the details concerning the explosion at the BDH plant. I agree with my hon. Friend that the severity of the incident should not be underestimated, and I should like to join him in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services and the many other organisations and individuals involved. There is no doubt that their calm and responsible action did much to mimimise the inconvenience and fear suffered by the residents of my hon. Friend's constituency.
In addressing my hon. Friend's specific points, I should first like to emphasise that the Health and Safety Executive carried out a very detailed investigation into the incident. It has produced a comprehensive report of its investigations and copies have already been made available to all public authorities with an interest in the incident. In addition, it held a press conference on 17 October when it made available to the public not only a statement but a detailed summary of its investigation. 1000 Having seen both that and the full report, I should like to think that my hon. Friend agrees that the detailed summary gave a full and comprehensive list of the HSE's recommendations and conclusions.
While I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about a wider dissemination of the report, I must emphasise that the requirements of section 28(3) of the 1974 Act, which deal with matters of confidentiality, mean that the report cannot be published in full. But I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend agree that he did not see any advantage in setting up a public inquiry.
I am confident that the HSE's investigation was thorough and has gone as far as possible towards identifying the causes and contributory factors surrounding this incident. The House has already issued an improvement notice to BDH Ltd. to ensure that the key recommendation of the report is implemented, and I understand that the company agreed and accepted that recommendation. I was encouraged to hear my hon. Friend's description of the various actions taken by the company since the fire occurred.
However, I appreciate that the residents of Poole may still have questions that they wish to raise. I shall be more than happy to meet the Poole residents association to discuss with it any concerns which it has.
My hon. Friend raised a number of other points about the events at Poole. On the question of sodium cyanide, the HSE does not consider that this substance in itself presents a hazard in a fire. If it were to come into contact with an acid solution, cyanide gas may be given off, but I am advised that in a fire the heat involved would almost certainly destroy this gas.
I agree that there was some good fortune that the off-site damage resulting from this explosion was not more extensive. But it was also bad fortune that the incident occurred at all. The HSE and the public authorities involved are looking closely at the conclusions of the investigation and will obviously consider existing procedures in the light of this experience.
My hon. Friend also asked about the adequacy of the water holding system. I understand that the bulk of the liquid was contained within the effluent plant on site. Any fire water that was not contained went to the pumping plant, which has two holding tanks. In any case, the quantities of water involved would have significantly diluted any particularly hazardous substances, and any rain would only have helped this process.
I come to the question of the HSE's resources. My hon. Friend asked a number of times whether I was satisfied with the manner in which the HSE carried out its responsibilities and with the measures it takes to ensure compliance with new and existing safety requirements. I am fully satisfied that the HSE has sufficient resources to carry out its responsibilities and to monitor safety standards.
But I must also add that the prime responsibility for the prevention of accidents clearly lies with employers, employees and others at the workplace.
On any basis, the incidents at Poole which my hon. Friend has brought to our attention tonight were, frankly, terrifying and I well understand the concern which he and his constituents have had to ensure that such a thing should never happen again.
I hope that in what is inevitably a brief contribution in a brief debate I have been able to offer my hon. Friend some of the consolations and assurances he sought. I stress 1001 again that I shall be delighted to meet the delegation he wishes to bring to me and to do what I can to set their minds at rest still further.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o'clock on Wednesday morning.