[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair] — Buncefield
Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative)
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words, and I shall endeavour to be brief. First, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mike Penning for his role in this matter. There is something providential about the fact that the worst fire in western Europe since the second world war should occur in a constituency represented by a fireman. It was undoubtedly in the interests of all his constituents and mine to have someone so knowledgeable, as well as so vigorous in their response, to represent their interests. I pay tribute to him for securing this debate and for his contribution today. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Anne Main who, with her customary vigour, upheld the interests of our constituents vis-à-vis the local authority and its dilatory response early on. I also pay tribute to the emergency workers who responded with speed, efficiency and courage to the original fire.
I have a few questions that arise from the fire. In particular, I want to know why it has taken so long to complete the inquiry. I am a simple person, and it does not seem to me that it should take two years or more to carry out an inquiry into this sort of event. I have every confidence in my right hon. former colleague who is in charge of the inquiry, but I cannot help feeling that with a tighter timetable and suitable resources, it would have been possible to finish the inquiry earlier to everybody's advantage.
I want to raise the planning implications of the fire. Again, I take a simple approach. When the Buncefield site was built, it was some way from residential areas. Over time, residential and industrial areas have built up closer to it and consequently were affected when the fire occurred. It seems to me, and to most of my constituents, that the obvious next step is to replace Buncefield with a site that is further away from any built-up area. It will still supply the fuels that we recognise are necessary for our lives and for aviation and so on, but it will do so away from the existing site and release it for house building.
We are under huge pressure to build houses. Most of us think that the pressure is excessive and results from mistaken Government policies. However, if that house building is to take place, the Buncefield site is a sensible place to choose if the depot is moved elsewhere. Why cannot that simple decision be taken? If the reverse decision has been taken—to retain Buncefield where it is—may we have an explanation for that?
I have only a limited number of constituents affected by the fire. The border of my constituency is the M1, and Buncefield is a few hundred yards to the left of the M1. Actually, the Buncefield site is the boundary of my constituency and a few residences there are among the closest to the fire. It was traumatic for all those residents, not least for one of my constituents, Ian Silverstein, who lived in a wonderful Lutyens house, which was one of the nearest to the fire. He was at home at the time and he said that he felt as if a plane had crashed upon his house. He managed to escape, but the front door was blown right through to the back of the house. That beautiful residence is now potentially ruined. My constituent's traumatic experience was made worse by the fact that the property, though boarded up, was thrice looted in the ensuing days, which raises questions about the effectiveness of the security and police response to prevent such action. Looking forward now, he raises some questions which he has asked me to put to the Minister on his behalf.
First, why, some two years on, is my constituent still not in receipt of any compensation? His life is in ruins. Everything is on hold pending the HSE report and any potential prosecution. Why has there not been a speedier response? He is also worried that the report itself is being funded by the oil companies. That seems to him to introduce a degree of collusion and undermines the integrity of the report. Will the Minister explain the nature of that funding and reassure him on that point?
My constituent Ian Silverstein wants to know why the Government are not taking action against the oil companies responsible and why they have not created a disaster or recovery fund to compensate the people who have been directly affected. Only a small number of people have been directly and seriously affected by the fire. I hope that we will receive answers to those questions and I hope that we will learn the lessons of this whole experience. The two lessons that seem to be paramount, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead pointed out, are that when this sort of disaster occurs, a whole range of Departments and local authorities are affected, so it is crucial that one person be put in charge. One Minister should be the focal point to clear all queries, to supervise, co-ordinate and ensure that there is a joined-up response. Can systems be put in place to ensure that that is the immediate response in the event of another disaster?
The other lesson to be learned is that we must respond more rapidly. Lengthy inquiries that go on for ever cannot be necessary. The facts, although complicated, do not require two years to sort out. Can we therefore have a speedier approach to inquiries and the resolution of the issues involved?
If those lessons can be learned, some gain will at least have been made in the event of future problems. We all recognise that there will be different problems in different places in future and we would like the constituents of other Members of Parliament at least to benefit from the failures that took place in this case.