May I say, Mr. O'Hara, what a pleasure it is to open the debate this morning under your chairmanship?
It is with some sadness that I stand before the House after securing Mr. Speaker's permission to hold a debate on the Buncefield disaster that took place in my constituency on
"Speaking to you all, it quickly becomes apparent that there are really strong local partnerships in place... Obviously it is these relationships which will undoubtedly bring about sustainable and lasting solutions to all the challenges to rebuild community life."
The quotation is from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who visited my constituency following the Buncefield explosion. It is sad that I should stand here, more than two years after the explosion and more than two years since the last statement on the Floor of the House by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Prescott, saying to the Government that we have some real problems in my constituency following the explosion. The problems are no fault of my constituency or my constituents, or the businesses or the local authority that has done so well to handle the situation.
I wish to put on record again—I have done it many times, but it will not hurt to do so again—my admiration for chief fire officer Roy Wilsher, for the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service, and for the many county fire services that came to our rescue and helped us. I must declare an interest: I was a fireman for eight years, and I trained on refinery fires at the Coryton refinery, which supplied the fuel that caused the initial explosion. I am unashamed in my huge admiration for the firefighters of this country.
I also wish to thank the other emergency services, and in particular the chief constable and the constabularies that came to our assistance. Sadly, as is often true of such situations, many thousands of people had to leave their homes and many businesses had to be excluded from their premises. I wish also to place on record my admiration for Dacorum borough council, led by the excellent chief executive, Daniel Zammit, whose staff were magnificent. They put themselves into dangerous situations to protect others. There were no questions about whether a building was a local authority property, private property or anything else; everybody—the whole community—pulled together. I received literally hundreds of letters from people in private dwellings whose homes were boarded up and made safe by the chief executive's officers. I have nothing but admiration for Dacorum borough council, which is a very small authority—I do not say that in a derisory way—that responded fantastically.
Being a local resident who was at Buncefield within half an hour of the first explosion, a former fireman and very nosy, I managed to get very close to the incident. I was lucky enough to be at the forward control point when senior firefighters were making decisions about how to put out the fire. My initial concern, like everybody's, was the safety of my community: the residents and the people working on the site as well as—and this was very much the case—the firefighters and other emergency services.
It was apparent that serious injuries had been sustained by some of the people working at the depot in the early hours of that Sunday morning, and it has been put on record many times that it is an absolute miracle that no one died. At least one engineer who was working at the site received serious lung injuries, and all the injured were taken to the excellent accident and emergency department at Hemel Hempstead general hospital. I wonder what on earth would happen if such an incident took place in December this year, because there will be no accident and emergency department open to look after those injuries. Sadly, the Government have decided to close Hemel Hempstead general hospital. I shall not go on about that today, because I am going to request an Adjournment debate on the hospital's future, and another Minister can take the flak for it.
The Buncefield incident, which took place in the early hours of a Sunday morning, left thousands of people with damaged homes, and thousands not knowing whether their businesses or jobs would survive. I wish to emphasise how lucky our community was. I have met many residents, including some very young people, who were lying in bed that morning, as one does on a Sunday morning, probably not even awake. Indeed, if one is thinking about waking up at 6.10 am, perhaps one should turn over and go back to sleep. They were woken initially by the explosion, but they suddenly realised that they were covered in glass; or that the front of their house had disappeared; or in some cases, that the whole house was falling down around them as they lay in bed. We are talking not about a war zone, or an area where, sadly, earthquakes or tsunamis happen, but about an urban area in eastern England, which was blown apart by an incident at an industrial complex.
Many of my constituents still suffer trauma from the explosion, and many children still receive counselling. I shall provide some quotations from children who have received counselling to try to recover. They are not grown-ups who have experienced many things in their lives. One boy of seven who needed counselling said:
"Counselling has been good 'cos it's made me stronger."
He is a seven-year-old boy whose life has been tragically changed because of an industrial incident. Another child said:
"You have really helped me find out what I want and how I feel."
That young lady was 12. That is how young people in my constituency have been affected, and hundreds of people of all ages have received counselling.
One former constituent, who moved out of my constituency because he can never return to his home, is a gentleman called Ian Silverstein. Ian's home was blown to smithereens. It looked like someone had dropped a 1,000 lb bomb next to his house. I have visited the site. The house is gone—it does not exist—and he worked all his life for it. I am sure that we would all struggle to realise what that feels like. There was no explosion in his home, and he had not done anything wrong. Something happened through no fault of his own.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fight over the past few years for his constituents. He has been very assiduous, and I just wish that Ministers were more responsive to his requests for information and action. Can my hon. Friend estimate the distance from the explosion to the homes that were damaged? In my constituency, there are homes near to plants that are even more dangerous than the one that exploded at Buncefield.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. May I also praise him for his quick response before Christmas when the hydrocracker at the Coryton refinery exploded? I have some knowledge of the hydrocracker because when I was a fireman in Basildon, I was on the first response unit that went to deal with it when it blew up many years ago. I know the fears that exist, and I am conscious that my hon. Friend did not go in the opposite direction; he went straight down to see the firefighters to ensure that they, too, were looked after.
To answer my hon. Friend's question, when the first explosion took place at Buncefield, the damage occurred several kilometres away. If he has an opportunity to read the interim reports from the health and safety inquiry, he will find that because there was nothing structurally to prevent the explosion spreading outwards, or the subsequent suction inwards after the oxygen had been used up, properties as far away as St. Albans, Redbourn and the centre of Hemel Hempstead, which is several kilometres away, were subject to serious structural damage. One school in St. Albans had its central heating boiler sucked up through the flue, which blew up boilers throughout the school. Subsequently, the school did not open. That is the sort of damage that occurs in such explosions.
I was told many years ago, when I trained on such fires, that we could expect only one tank to catch fire, and probably no explosion. That remained the advice until Buncefield happened. I was told that an explosion such as Buncefield had not been modelled and no one knew that it could happen. I pointed out that it had happened in New Jersey and Florida, so we could have predicted it. However, we could not have predicted the subsequent explosions in other tanks.
I find something slightly difficult to understand. There was a tank containing unleaded petrol, and some 200 tonnes flowed from it when it was full. Someone who does not think that an explosion will take place if the safety devices fail does not really understand petroleum and should not be in charge of safety at such a depot. It will be for the inquiry to come to conclusions on the matter, and I shall return to that later. The fears of the constituents of my hon. Friend Bob Spink, of people in my constituency and of others around the country about the safety of such depots are understandable.
So where are we today? An inquiry is being conducted—astonishingly, through the Department for Work and Pensions—by the Health and Safety Executive. It is headed by the independent chair, Lord Newton of Braintree, who is doing an excellent job considering the remit that he has been given. Sadly, its inquiry is being conducted behind closed doors, so public confidence in it is somewhat diminished. While the fire was in full flow—the fuel was still flowing, which was why there was such a large plume—I said that for the sake of public confidence in such installations and the confidence of my community, it was vital that there was an open, public inquiry. I entered into negotiations with the then Deputy Prime Minister suggesting that we hold an inquiry similar to the one that took place after the Marchioness disaster. I freely admit that that inquiry took place not under the last Conservative Administration but under the new Labour Administration. It is sad that there was not an early public inquiry in that case, as it would have saved a lot of anguish and concern for many of the relatives concerned.
Sadly, once the fire was out, the role of the Deputy Prime Minister was removed, and I was told immediately that the inquiry would be conducted by the DWP, which is responsible for the HSE. I cannot understand why that was the case. It was a massive local situation that had nothing to do with work and pensions and everything to do with the community. The then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was in charge of the fire service, and the issue was about local government and local communities. That is why I was desperate for a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister to respond to this debate, and I thank the Minister for his attendance.
Two years on, an inquiry is in progress, and it has produced interim reports. We now know, within reason, what caused the explosion. There has been extensive modelling, and it seems as if every safety device between Buncefield and Coryton in Essex failed. As I said earlier, 200 tonnes of unleaded fuel escaped through the air venting at the top of tank 912 and caused a vapour cloud. Something—the inquiry and others are not yet 100 per cent. confident about what it was—ignited the cloud, causing the first of the three explosions and the subsequent 20-tank fire.
The costs to my community, the region and the nation as a whole were large, and I shall try to break them down. I shall probably ask the Minister more questions than he can answer, and I appreciate that he may have to ask other Ministers to write to me. There was a great deal of concern about the decision to put the fire out. When there is a fire of such a size firefighters contain it, usually with a water curtain, before deciding to try to work their way in and put it out. I apologise for having too much knowledge on the subject—it comes from having a previous life outside politics.
When the decision had been made to contain the fire and there was no longer a real worry about more tanks exploding, a decision had to be made about whether to allow the fire to burn itself out—all fires burn themselves out once the fuel goes, whether it is wood, building or, in this case, oil and petroleum—or try to put it out. I took part in broadcasts from the site, and it was obvious to me that if we tried to put it out, there would be environmental risks because of the wash-off of the firefighting water, which would take with it contamination from the site. It is plain what sort of problems would have resulted.
Knowing such refineries, it was clear to me that the bunds designed to hold the fuel would never be able to cope with holding the firefighting water and foam. I did not know at the time that the mastic that had been used on the bunds was not heat-resistant and had melted almost instantaneously, causing the water to flow out. I did not know that the engineers had drilled 7 to 8-in holes in the bund wall through which to feed pipes, but had not corked them, so it leaked straight through. I did not know that some walls were damaged so badly by the explosion that water was flowing straight out. It is for the inquiry to conclude who was responsible and whether there was any negligence.
I did know that perfluorooctanyl sulfonate—or PFOS for short—is a carcinogenic chemical used in a lot of firefighting foam. For those who do know, PFOS is a sticking agent. It is used in firefighting and fire equipment, but over the years it has also been used extensively in insecticides and pesticides on agricultural land. I shall come on to that point later. The Environment Agency asked for a delay. There was consultation in which I was not involved—I understand at gold command—and the decision was made to put out the fire. Firemen always want to put fires out; they are robust creatures and join the fire service to fight fires. If they are told not to fight a fire, they put up a robust argument against that instruction—I can say so from experience. Sometimes, however, it must be decided whether it is worth risking the life of firefighters—in my consideration no building is worth anybody's life—and whether there is a risk to the environment.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that by that stage considerable time had passed—several hours, in fact—and there was no risk to buildings because they had all been destroyed? The question was whether the fire should be left to burn out or whether the firefighters should go in and, in doing so, put the environment at considerable long-term risk. No doubt he will come to that.
My hon. Friend has read my thoughts; that is exactly the point that I was coming to. There was no risk to any other building. The buildings involved had been blown to smithereens. The fire at one property close to the incident, Northgate house, was an eight-pump fire on its own, which is a major incident. As a fireman, I probably went to four eight-pump fires in eight years, and I was at a busy station in Basildon, in Essex.
There was no risk at all to others. The only risk was to those who were looting local people's properties, and that was a risk that they took in doing something abhorrent and appalling. The decision was made, and I have not quite got to the bottom of exactly why. The chief fire officer Roy Wilsher tells me—and I believe him—that he made the decision to put the fire out. As I said, firemen are firemen, and they want to put fires out. There was a huge amount of help, not only in manpower from other brigades, but on a national level with the high-velocity pumps that the then Deputy Prime Minister procured. I have praised him for that before, and I praise him again. Those pumps are a wonderful national asset. They were used extensively to help tackle the flooding that sadly occurred last year—interestingly, their role was exactly the reverse of their role in my incident: pulling water rather than pumping it.
The decision was therefore made to put the fire out. There is much concern in my constituency and surrounding areas about contamination not only from petrochemical products at the site but from the foam that was used. I understand that some 70,000 litres of concentrate contained the chemical PFOS. In the run-up to Buncefield, the Government were in extensive negotiations with the European Commission regarding legislation to ban PFOS from inclusion in any product in this country. Indeed, they wanted the maximum penalty for using or bringing the product into the country to be two years' imprisonment, so there was obviously knowledge that PFOS is very dangerous. It is carcinogenic and is classed as toxic under the chemical regime. As has been fairly widely publicised since the incident, extensive contamination from petrochemicals and PFOS has been found in the new and existing boreholes drilled by the Environment Agency.
In the spring after the Buncefield incident, I was worried when one of my farmers reported that deformed cattle were being born on his farm—Westwick farm in the Leverstock Green part of my constituency—on land adjacent to Buncefield. The farmer, Mr. Archer, has told me, in good faith, that lots of foam was blowing across the land where his rare breed stock were grazing. He brought in his stock, but does not know whether they ingested any of the foam. I am not a farmer, but whenever I go to the farm, all the cattle want is to be fed. When something different is in front of them, they tend to want to lick and taste it; apparently that is natural.
I shall not mention all of the deformities, because they are shocking, but to give hon. Members an indication, some of the calves were born with heads of almost twice the size of a normal calf and some were born with no spinal cord. Those sorts of deformity are frightening. My constituent did the right thing: he contacted his vet, who then contacted the Food Standards Agency, which said that the matter was nothing to with it, and my constituent then contacted me.
I have been in negotiations and discussions with the FSA, and subsequently with the laboratories at Pirbright, which should have been informed so that toxicology tests could take place. I have spoken to the head of the Government's toxicology department, who has visited the farm. Tests are now being done—two years on—to find out whether the deformities are due to PFOS. I was upset and worried when the head of toxicology—I thank him for being so frank and honest—told me that the test results were unlikely to be ready before June. I asked him why, and he said that PFOS is particularly difficult to detect in fallen stock and liver samples and that only one laboratory in this country is capable of doing those tests.
PFOS has been used in pesticides, insecticides and other agricultural products for 30 years. I am sure that the Minister will not be able to answer this, but is that the reason why, before Buncefield, the Government were becoming more and more concerned about PFOS in the environment? Could it be that the only laboratory that is capable of testing for PFOS has a contract with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to test for PFOS in the food that comes off the land in this country?
I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to give an answer on this, but I would love to receive a letter from the relevant Minister saying whether the laboratory is testing basic foods that are coming off our fields to discover the level of PFOS contamination, if any. I believe that that is true and think that the public should know whether it is. Perhaps it is time to come clean about it if there has been contamination. I am sure that such a serious situation will concern the public. I am not trying to scare the public; I am trying to get to the truth about what has happened to the environment in my town and country.
I, and many others in my constituency, have called for a public inquiry from day one, and we came close to getting one from the previous Deputy Prime Minister, who saw the logic and sense of natural justice and having an open inquiry. When my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron visited Buncefield shortly after the explosion to praise the emergency workers and see for himself the devastation and effects on my community, he, too, called for a public inquiry. He also called for a single, high-ranking Minister to be made responsible for addressing the problems incurred by communities when incidents such as Buncefield occur, and empowered to do so.
Since then, there have been natural disasters around the country—I send my thoughts and commiserations to those who have lost so much in the flooding—and I am sure that hon. Members who have experienced the effects of flooding will, like me, have been moved from pillar to post by different Departments saying, "They're in charge; I'm in charge—no you're not in charge." That happens with the Environment Agency, the DWP, local government, the FSA and three or four other Departments that I could name.
It is completely illogical that, when such incidents occur, which is fairly rarely, and the Government need to take action quickly in a co-ordinated way, we do not have the aid and help that we need. I do not wish to be controversial, but the Government have responded compassionately to disasters around the world, and this country has responded fantastically to the tsunami, the flooding in Bangladesh and other incidents around the world, so it is incomprehensible to me that this and previous Governments have not thought about how best to look after our own communities should such an incident occur.
With the backing of the leader of the official Opposition and, I hope, Members on both sides of the House, I call again for detailed planning to ensure that if that sort of disaster is, sadly, thrust upon other communities—of course, I hope that that does not happen—a single, high-ranking Minister, perhaps from the Cabinet Office, will be in charge. It is most frustrating for local communities, businesses, authorities and MPs to write to a Minister asking about x and be told that it is nothing to do with him and to ask y, but then be sent to someone else.
Let us consider the effects on my community. I have alluded already to the effects on individuals, some of which were traumatic and difficult to explain to someone who has not had the same experience. If a person's home is blown away, is completely gone, whether it was a rented local authority home or a property of perhaps £1 million-plus does not matter in real terms—it was their home. So many of my constituents and the constituents of colleagues in the Chamber today have lost so much. It is ludicrous and immoral that, two years on, so many of them have not had the compensation that they deserve.
The oil companies involved are employing some of the most expensive, articulate and, they probably think, brilliant lawyers and barristers in the country to limit their exposure. Of course, much of the compensation will be held back slightly while we wait for a decision from the Health and Safety Executive inquiry and Lord Newton, as its chairman, on whether prosecutions are likely to take place under the relevant Acts. There is no way that I want in any shape or form to jeopardise any such prosecution, but it seems fundamentally wrong and unfair from a simple natural justice point of view that people have lost so much.
People's lives have been affected so badly, businesses have gone to the wall and thousands of people have lost their jobs. One third of the people who worked in the Maylands business area live in my constituency. The knock-on effect of the difficulty in making decisions about how we go forward is, frankly, wrong, immoral and unfair.
There are court cases. People have had to pull together in consortiums, so that they can afford even to take cases. Some people have been lucky in that their insurance included legal protection. Their cases have progressed, but even some of those are coming to the end their financial period.
Again, I praise my local authority, not only for how it handled the incident and the subsequent evacuation of many thousands of people from their homes, but the cost to it was substantial—just under £80,000. My local community and taxpayers are not able to recoup that. The Bellwin formula has done its bit and other help came, but just in Dacorum—I am not talking about Hertfordshire's expenses but just Dacorum's—the costs resulted in nearly 1 per cent. more on the council tax. That is a huge amount of money for a small local authority to bear.
There have been promises. I read the ministerial statement before Christmas from the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was a response to my request of the Leader of the House during business questions. The statement said that, after Bellwin, some £4.4 million of aid had gone to my community. My hon. Friend Mr. Gauke will deal with this in a moment. We do not know where the money was coming from or whether it has arrived. I am conscious that it may well be money that was promised for the regeneration of Maylands, the town centre and the community before the Buncefield incident even took place. If that is right, it is fundamentally wrong that money that was already coming has been switched from regeneration to help supposedly because of Buncefield.
Planning and planning law is another area in which the unfairness of the system on my local authority and community is obvious. The oil companies are multi-billion pound, multinational companies. They have budgets that most Departments do not have, and they are putting huge pressure on my local authority to reopen parts and, I am sure, eventually all of the Buncefield depot. I could possibly understand such pressure after the inquiry has come to its conclusions, after we know the facts, after we know how safe it is to have a home or business close to a refinery, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point a moment ago, but it is being applied now.
BP has asked to open its area of the Buncefield depot, which was only marginally damaged. I understand that some £1 million-worth of damage was done, but anybody who has seen photographs of Buncefield would know that it was quite a small amount of damage. The company has asked to open its part, so that it can supply aviation fuel to terminal 5. Apparently the existing pipeline to terminal 5 is not big enough. The sudden realisation that a bigger pipe is needed makes me wonder what the planners were doing during all the years of planning for terminal 5. BP is negotiating very hard with my local authority, and to be fair, it is quite open about the fact that it wants to use the depot for aviation fuel and not for petrol. I understand that a section 106 agreement is required, and I hope that it is tightly worded, so that we do not get any problems with lawyers later on.
It seems fundamentally unjust to my community that a small local authority must make planning decisions that involve national infrastructure and safety when an inquiry has not finished and when it has asked for help. I understand that the local planning committee referred some of the questions up to regional level. They were bounced back with the comment that the decision was the local authority's, but the local authority is not qualified to make such decisions. A Department must take responsibility and decide on the way forward. The local authority has fantastic staff and officers, but the decision cannot be left in their hands, because it is not part of their job.
Just to give an example of the sort of pressure that oil companies are applying and their blatant disregard for the laws of this land, just before Christmas, Total, one of the other oil companies that operated from Buncefield, indicated to the local authority that it would connect through a valve system the pipeline from its refinery to the Heathrow spur pipeline. My local authority said, "You need planning consent." It has the experts, so we would think. Naturally, their word should be taken. I understand that the authority sought advice and was told, quite rightly, in an opinion from the Departments involved, that planning was required. The response from Total was, "No, we do not agree with you and we are going to do it," and it did. No planning exists. I understand that the Environment Agency and the HSE were present on site while the work was done to ensure that safety was paramount and that there was no risk to the environment.
Why was the work not stopped? How can a company just ignore planning law and go ahead? I asked that of my local authority's chief executive, who said, "Mr. Penning, what can we do? We have one opinion that says yes, but the big oil company says no. We put in an order to stop the work and we have to pay the costs. We are only a small authority, and we cannot risk that burden on our local taxpayers." The matter should have been taken out of the hands of my local authority. Such decisions should be made by experts and senior Ministers. It seems absolutely ludicrous that fear of the costs of challenging a company like Total on this sort of decision should preclude the enforcement of planning law.
I ask the Minister to ensure that that situation is highlighted. I hope he will indicate that we will have meetings with the relevant Ministers, and I hope that common sense will prevail and the laws of this land will not be ignored simply because a local authority does not have the financial clout to proceed. That is what is happening. The fear of litigation and of incurring costs is preventing local authorities from being allowed to protect their local community.
An interim report from Lord Newton's inquiry contained a very interesting statement. In short, it stated that Dacorum—my local authority—should be granted special status. That includes parts of the constituencies of my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley and of my hon. Friend Anne Main. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, whose constituents were greatly affected by the fire, sends her apologies for not being here today. As she is in Bangladesh at the moment, I accept her reasons for not being able to make it here in time this morning.
What does "special status" mean? I have had meetings and made calls and found that it means something similar to the status that was granted to Carlisle when a disaster took place. I understand—I stand to be corrected—that an enterprise zone was created there, so that the community could benefit from tax breaks to regenerate the area. As I understand it, the official interpretation is that one can apply for things that are available to everybody and one might possibly be granted some special status. Frankly, to put that in layman's terms, "Do not hold your breath."
We are holding our breath, because if we do not receive help in this significant regional hub, the effects on my community and on the whole region will be devastating. We have had many visits from the Deputy Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We have had visits from the then Leader of the House, who, shockingly in my opinion, did not visit Buncefield or any of the affected residents or businesses. He also did not visit my hospital, which is closing. We had a visit from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Although he is responsible for the inquiry, he did not go to the Buncefield site and meet the residents and businesses that have been so badly affected. As I understand it, he did not even meet the chief executive of my council who has been worried about the future and the long-term effects of the disaster.
We have had forums and meetings. Officials from myriad Departments have given us promises and undertakings, and nods and winks to indicate that help is coming. We do not need any more nods and winks; we need help. My community has suffered so badly from an industrial disaster that was not its fault, from a plant that is owned by multi-billion pound companies that are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to their responsibilities to the community. My community needs help from the Government, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time since the 2006 Finance Bill, Mr O'Hara, although I hope that this will be a slightly quicker and less draining experience for us both. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Penning on the way in which he has articulated the views of the people of Hemel Hempstead since the Buncefield explosion on
The implications and consequences of the explosion have affected a much wider area than just Hemel Hempstead, including my constituency, and that is not just because the vast majority of my constituents were woken at 6 o'clock in the morning on
The impact has also been felt by Dacorum borough council, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and, more widely, by Hertfordshire county council and the Hertfordshire police authority, all of which have had to pick up some of the bill in dealing with the consequences of the explosion. For example, Dacorum borough council is about £78,000 out of pocket even after we take account of the sums that it will have received under the Bellwin formula. The figure for the Hertfordshire police authority is about £300,000 and that for Hertfordshire county council is about £2.5 million. Those are substantial sums for organisations that are not necessarily very large. I do not intend to set out a general case to show that Hertfordshire is often hard done by, although we have learned in the past few days of concerns that Hertfordshire council tax payers may have to pick up some of the cost of the Olympics. That aside, however, the costs involved in dealing with Buncefield are significant and are having an impact on council tax payers and council services, and we should not ignore that.
There are also the costs involved in trying to rebuild the Maylands estate, which was devastated by the Buncefield explosion. That brings me to the statement made by the Minister for Local Government on
There is a wider issue, and we clearly need to look at the financial implications of the way in which we respond to disasters. I am sure that the matter is close to the Under-Secretary's heart, given that he represents Gloucester, which suffered terrible flooding in the summer. Following the summer flooding, money was made available in addition to the funds provided through the Bellwin formula. Even so, there is concern that support has been somewhat slow to reach the areas that were flooded, and local communities are having to pick up the cost of that major disaster. That is a concern in the Dacorum area, which covers not only my hon. Friend's constituency, but much of mine, too.
This is not the first Adjournment debate that we have had on Buncefield; we had one on
The environmental issues raised by the incident are important. The letter, which was dated
The letter also referred to two evaluations of PFOS, one by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which was carried out on behalf of the Health Protection Agency, and the other by the drinking water inspectorate. I would be grateful to know whether any progress has been made on the evaluation of PFOS and what assessment has been made of its dangers or otherwise.
In our earlier debate, my hon. Friend Mr. Clappison and I mentioned concerns about a leak of 800,000 litres of firewater at the Blackbird Lees sewage treatment plant near Radlett. At the time of the then Minister's letter of August 2006, no damage to the aquatic environment had been found, and I would be grateful if Ministers could confirm at some point that that remains the case.
Another issue is of particular relevance not to the Dacorum area, but to the other end of my constituency. Following the Buncefield explosion, much of the firewater was stored at the Maple Lodge sewage plant. In his letter, the then Minister for the Environment said that he shared concerns about the 26 million litres of firewater still being stored seven months after the incident. Indeed, that firewater was not dealt with until June 2007—18 months after the explosion. I followed the issue quite closely, staying in contact with the Environment Agency and Thames Water and visiting the site. My understanding is that much of the blame lies with the oil companies, and there are clearly lessons to be learned about the way in which we should deal with firewater, should we ever be unfortunate enough to face a similar incident again. Clearly, 18 months is too long, and by the end of the process, several of my constituents were complaining about the dreadful smell that the water was causing.
I want, however, to end on a positive note. The way in which the people of the Dacorum and Hemel Hempstead area—whether local authorities, voluntary organisations or individuals—have rallied around has been hugely impressive. They have demonstrated a real sense of community, and I congratulate them on that. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead on all the work that he and they have done collectively to ensure that Hemel Hempstead rallies round and recovers from that dreadful explosion.
In his usual pragmatic and courteous style, my hon. Friend Mike Penning has not only done a superb job for his constituents, but made the Government address the issues in a way that should make life safer for all those of our constituents who live close to major accident hazard sites. That is very necessary, so I congratulate my hon. Friend warmly.
There are two such sites on Canvey island, both of which are potential threats. I have often raised the Calor liquid nitrogen gas proposals in this Chamber, so I shall not do so now. We have a new proposal, the Oikos biodiesel site, which I shall come to in a moment.
Lord Newton is the chairman of the Buncefield inquiry, and I congratulate him on his conduct of it, but I should have wanted more speed and transparency. I am sure that he will take note of that. As a result of the inquiry, the Health and Safety Executive has conducted a consultation, referred to in its consultative document CD211, "Proposals for revised policies for HSE advice on development control around large-scale petrol storage sites". In section 6 of the document the HSE acknowledged:
"Clearly we have a poor scientific understanding of the mechanisms which led to the vapour cloud explosion at Buncefield, and we accept that installations storing other substances could present this type of hazard, for example bulk LPG storage, and other flammable liquid storage."
Order. We must proceed to the winding-up speeches.
I echo other right hon. and hon. Members' tributes to Mike Penning for securing this important debate, and for the work that he has done on behalf of his constituents and the many other people across the country who may face incidents of the same type in future. He spoke movingly of the horrors of the day. When the incident occurred, my noble Friend Lord McNally, who is a resident of St. Albans, was staying with my family in Cornwall, and was on the telephone to his family to find out what had happened. The impact of the incident in the wider area was brought home to me then.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead rightly paid tribute to the work of the emergency services and local authority employees, and the way in which the whole community handled the event and sought to come to terms with it. He poignantly expressed how traumatic it was for people, including children, and homeowners whose property was destroyed or damaged. He raised crucial questions, which other right hon. and hon. Members have echoed, perhaps the most crucial of which was how the decision was taken about how to handle the fire—whether to let it burn or to be more proactive, and perhaps place the environment at risk in the longer term. The hon. Gentleman made some very sensible suggestions about how the Government should respond to continuing questions from the community, to ensure that there is transparency and that everyone involved knows who to go to for a clear point of contact in resolving issues.
Mr. Lilley addressed the issue of the speed of the inquiry, as did Bob Spink. Mr. Gauke made telling points about the financial implications for local organisations and taxpayers. The last thing that the community needs after such a trauma, as we have heard, is greater financial pressure. It should be getting further support to deal with the problems caused by the incident.
The Major Incident Investigation Board has made it clear that its work is not concluded and that several more years' research may be needed to deliver sound guidance to the industry. Arguably, what is missing is more guidance from Ministers to the community in Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding area, which has been severely affected by the blast. The Minister may recall the water contamination incident at Lowermoor in my own constituency some 20 years ago. The then Government were determined not to let all the facts come to light, and many are still buried today. I am convinced that the present Government do not want to make the same errors for the people of Hertfordshire that were made for people in North Cornwall all those years ago.
Specifically, is not it time that a Minister made a statement to the House about the Government's present view on the safety of perfluorooctane sulfonate, the chemical dispensed at high speed along with water through high-volume pumps, to tackle the Buncefield blaze? The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to the case of Mr. Archer, the local farmer whose calving success rate fell sharply after the incident. I read about his case with interest and a growing sense of horror before this debate, and although of course I have not had the benefit of any direct contact with him, I know that the hon. Gentleman is doing what he can to deal with the matter. Mr Archer was told in May last year that PFOS is not highly toxic, although there is clear evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the Government's own risk analysis said so in 2004.
Government agencies are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to such individual cases. People are bound to wonder why, when the Environment Agency considered something toxic in 2004, the Food Standards Agency would suggest that it was not toxic in 2007, after it was possible that people and animals had been affected. As with those who have been affected by organophosphate poisoning from sheep dip or from pesticides used during service in the Gulf, or by exposure to contaminated air in aircraft cabins, it is in any Government's natural interest to deny a causal link. It is easy to claim that there is not 100 per cent. of proof of anything, but the Minister would surely concede that when a farmer whose business has been very successful experiences a huge increase in the number of deformities in calves, something needs to be investigated, so there is a case for more Government action.
It cannot be right for the Drinking Water Inspectorate to invent a "safe" level of PFOS in the water supply. Indeed, the inspectorate itself has recognised that PFOS at the levels it calls safe is potentially unsafe for young children. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he stands by the inspectorate's guidance. At the same time, he could tell us whether it was really necessary to use PFOS to extinguish the Buncefield fire. Indeed, was it necessary to extinguish the fire at all? As the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead has suggested, it is not at all clear that the decision to use high-volume pumps was an operational one. Was political pressure brought to bear from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on the local gold command to use the pumps? After all, it took eight hours for the local operation to decide that HVPs were necessary, and expert advice not to use them was ignored at the time.
Now that contamination has occurred, the Government must not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. In my own constituency, a not dissimilar event that resulted in water contamination has brought the whole machinery of government into disrepute. Twenty years after our water poisoning incident, I am still in touch with sufferers, and even in the past month it has been left to a coroner to try to get to the bottom of what occurred in 1988. The Government must not fall into the same trap of opacity with the Buncefield incident.
I hope the Minister will work with his colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that complaints from the constituents of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead are taken seriously. Experience in North Cornwall suggests that tests have to be carried out promptly if the full health effects of chemical contamination in water are to be properly measured and, more importantly, treated. In recent years a corrosive trend has emerged in which disasters or incidents occur and the Government respond by announcing an inquiry. The inquiry may take years to research and report, and there are no guarantees that the Government will, in any event, take notice of its recommendations. Meanwhile, those who were affected are left without answers and are forgotten as the media circus moves on to the next incident. I urge the Minister again not to indulge that trend.
I again congratulate the honourable Member for Hemel Hempstead, and other right hon. and hon. Members from Hertfordshire and the wider area, on raising questions about the incident, and continuing to press for more answers on environmental pollution, the financial implications, and the lessons that can be learned, so that other communities that suffer incidents—whether natural disasters, industrial accidents or whatever else might occur—can be sure that they will get the support they need from the Government and Government agencies.
This is an appropriate and timely debate, for a number of reasons. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Penning on securing it, and on the passionate, cogent and moving way in which he dealt with the history of what has befallen his constituents since the tragic events in question. The House knows the commitment and assiduousness that he has shown in attending to the interests of his constituents in this matter, and I pay tribute to him for that. His contribution is enhanced all the more by his own expertise in, and knowledge of, the fire services. Of course, the importance and dedication of our fire and rescue services, which were demonstrated at Buncefield, have been demonstrated many times since, not least, tragically, in Warwickshire recently.
All the hon. Members who spoke made cogent and telling points on behalf of their constituents, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board. I shall not repeat them, because I want to give him the maximum time to respond. All the points were soundly made and based on the evidence. The specific issues that affect the people of Buncefield and surrounding areas need to be addressed, but the debate has also highlighted related broader issues of public policy. Again, those were referred to in the debate. Dan Rogerson valiantly made the point that we need to look generally at how we deal with civil disasters and emergencies such as Buncefield once the immediate catastrophe has been dealt with. Our rescue services are good and highly professional, but once the immediate danger has been dealt with, what happens once the media attention and circus has moved on, as the hon. Gentleman said? How do we help the communities that are left behind to pick up the pieces? People in the communities surrounding Buncefield have genuine concerns and grievances.
We must consider, too, the length of time that it has taken to find out what went wrong, and the need for transparency and openness to restore public confidence. I, too, have the utmost faith in Lord Newton of Braintree, and I am sure that he will use every proper endeavour to resolve those issues. It may be the case that his inquiry has had to take place in private because it might recommend criminal sanctions, but it is important that it acts in a timely fashion. As soon as it has reached a conclusion, and decisions of the kind that may inhibit Lord Newton from speaking in public are out of the way, the facts must be placed fully in the public domain—that is what the people affected are owed.
The Planning Bill, in which the Minister and I are involved, went into Committee yesterday. It will look at ways in which we can speed up inquiries into major developments, but perhaps we should also look at the means by which we can speed up inquiries into the consequences of such disasters. A criminal trial arising from an incident such as Buncefield would be wholly unconscionable if it were allowed to drag on for a period of two years. We need to apply the same sort of discipline to Health and Safety Executive inquiries. Another point I wish to make on planning was made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley, my hon. Friend Bob Spink and by other hon. Friends. It is the question of how to deal with the impact of major developments that are necessary for the economic well-being of a major industrial country but which have adverse impacts on those who live near them. While the Planning Bill is in Committee, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues take on board the crucial importance of ensuring that the communities affected by things such as pipelines and ancillary developments are given maximum input in the development of national policy statements and in decisions on the specific sites of such proposals. The ability of those people to put their case or to seek redress thereafter must not be watered down in any way.
I am concerned about the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead about the lack of what lawyers would call "equality of arms" that arises when a small local authority, on the one hand, seeks to deal with extremely wealthy multinational companies on the other. The issue of fairness needs to be addressed by the Government, and the Opposition would be more than happy to co-operate with them and to look at ways in which local authorities can be enabled to carry out their functions on behalf of their residents without any kind of intimidation or hindrance.
Another crucial point is the means by which we can ensure that help and assistance are channelled swiftly and effectively to those concerned. My hon. Friend referred to the observations made by our right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition about the desirability of having a single Minister to deal with such incidents. Following that logic, such a Minister should have a dedicated small team and budget. My right hon. Friend was right when he said that two years ago, and events since—the Minister has personal experience of flooding in his constituency—have reinforced the need for such a Minister. In the past, I encountered difficulties when I dealt with people with wide, cross-departmental responsibilities, so it is important that someone is empowered to take decisions, get things done, and to push through the logjams that we have all encountered in such instances. I hope that the Government look seriously at those suggestions. Again, in a spirit of co-operation, the Opposition are more than happy to work with them to find a constructive way forward and to achieve the single, joined-up focus that is necessary.
Significant points were made on the question of resilience funding. There is serious concern that the importance of resilience in civil emergencies is perhaps not as widely recognised as the importance of resilience to, for example, the terrorist threat. Many people who work with the fire and rescue authorities are concerned that, historically, resilience funding for their operations has not been as generous, or as reflective of the need to acquire new and technologically advanced equipment such as the high-velocity pumps that were mentioned, as the support given by the Home Office to police authorities. The difference in grant settlements for police authorities and for fire and rescue authorities in the same areas in recent years, including this year, tends to reinforce that point.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know well the plants to which he referred. We have such plants in the London part of the Thames Gateway. There is a large number of plants in civilian hands, and the terrorist threat as well as the ordinary civil emergency risk must be taken into account.
Within the existing funding envelope, I hope that we can look at a more sensible allocation of resources. I also hope that any changes to the planning regime will take those issues on board. We need an inherent scientific knowledge of risk in operations of this kind but sadly it is necessary, given the world in which we live, to look at the broader issues too, to ensure that communities that neighbour essential but inevitably risky developments are made safe. The remaining issues have been well rehearsed by my hon. and right hon. Friends, but I shall conclude by saying something on the importance of looking at the PFOS problem. Many people in the fire and rescue services have raised the issue with me in recent years, and I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall for the Liberal Democrats. The official Opposition support the need for greater clarity on the risks of PFOS. What is the position regarding its future use? We wish to ensure that those concerns are allayed, so I hope that Minister will address that and the other significant issues that have been raised in the debate.
The hour and a half that is allocated for this kind of debate sometimes seems daunting but, invariably, I get only 10 or 11 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. May I first wish everybody a happy new year and congratulate Mike Penning on securing the debate? He has put his points across with great passion and his experience as a firefighter has shown through in the debate. In the time available, I shall try to deal with as many of the questions as I can before coming back to what I think is the key point regarding regeneration in that part of Hemel Hempstead and the support for people in and around the affected communities in Buncefield.
The hon. Gentleman got across very well the scale of the explosions and the consequential impact on the local community—people, young and old. I join him in paying tribute to the work of all the emergency services and the fire and rescue service in particular. He mentioned the new dimension equipment and, in particular, the high-volume pumps, which made a huge difference. They have made a massive difference across the country in a range of incidents, not only the Buncefield fire, but the recent flooding. He mentioned his local authority, Dacorum, which, with a range of agencies, including the Government, has done very constructive work over the past two years. I will say a little about some of that work.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned public confidence in the inquiry. Lord Newton is a very well respected former Minister in the Thatcher Government and is doing a good job in the inquiry. The issue of a public inquiry was raised by a few hon. Members, but I must say that a public inquiry might well have taken much longer.
It is worth noting some of the local comments as well. Just a few weeks ago, in December, a report from the Buncefield community taskforce said:
"The Buncefield Investigation Board, tasked with finding out what happened and why at Buncefield, has been keen to engage local people in a variety of ways."
It is important to say for balance that some good work has taken place in involving local communities.
I will give way, but just once, because I want to make some headway on a number of points that hon. Members have made.
I thank the Minister for being so generous; I am conscious of the time. There is no criticism whatever from me or any other Opposition Member of the way in which Lord Newton of Braintree has handled the inquiry. He has done an absolutely fantastic job, but as I have said before publicly with him, his hands are tied behind his back by the remit that he has been given. The public inquiry on which the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Prescott, and I were negotiating was one similar to the Marchioness inquiry, which was very short, very robust and very quick. An inquiry like that would not have affected the prosecutions that this inquiry may involve.
I am not in any way suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is criticising Lord Newton or the way in which he has been handling the inquiry. I wish to ensure that that is noted during the debate.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a farmer in the area and calves that have been born on his farm. As I understand it, DEFRA's veterinary agency is looking into that. I have no further, more detailed information than that, but I know that it is taking a close look at that.
PFOS was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. PFOS is voluntarily being phased out at present, and I should like to get it on the record that the public may see foam being used, but PFOS is present only in the older stocks of foam. It is important that people are aware of that. I appreciate that hon. Members have asked more detailed questions about PFOS, to which I will ensure that there are written responses.
Giving a specific Minister responsibility was an underlying theme in the debate. In dealing with flooding in Gloucestershire, I have been dealing with a number of Departments—whether the Department for Transport in relation to damage to roads, people in my own Department, such as my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who has responsibility for recovery from flooding, or other Ministers, such as those with responsibility for regional development agencies. I hear what hon. Members have to say on this issue and the Cabinet Office is considering it, but the most important principle is to have joined-up work happening across Departments, because even if a specific Minister has responsibility, they and their Department will not necessarily have all the qualities required to get the best out of this. This is not just about Ministers either, but about inter-agency working at official level in Departments and about how we work better with local agencies.
Insurance was mentioned. I am pleased to say that there has been some progress with regard to those who have applied for cover. I understand that 75 per cent. of those who suffered damage have now had all the repairs carried out to their homes. A further 11 per cent. have had most carried out, but 14 per cent. still need repairs to be undertaken on their properties.
That is not right.
I am happy to enter into correspondence with the hon. Gentleman—in fact, not just correspondence. The Minister for Local Government is keen to meet him to take up some of these issues, particularly those affecting the hon. Gentleman's local authority, Dacorum. I am sure that he would welcome such a meeting and will ensure that it happens soon.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned, when talking about his local authority, the capacity to deal with oil companies, decisions about revocations and whether it should be the Government's role and responsibility to make those decisions. The Government have a role in the appeal process, but it is right for local authorities to be making those decisions on the ground. I would be interested to hear more—I know that the Minister for Local Government will be—about some of the capacity issues that Dacorum has had with regard to being able to use its own officers and its dealings on the ground. However, I think that all hon. Members would agree that it is important for local representatives and local communities to have their say with their local authorities when such decisions are made.
The hon. Gentleman talked about funding support and nods, winks and commitments that have been made in the past. I should have liked to talk in more detail about the £14 million package, the specialist status that goes with being a housing growth area and the support. The East of England Development Agency is providing more than £4 million as part of that. Very good work is happening locally with Dacorum and the Maylands partnership. We should pay tribute in the debate to the work that has gone on there. As I said, there is £14 million, and there is Bellwin money as well. All that can make a significant difference, but the hon. Gentleman is right: it must go together in a coherent package and the local authority must have the flexibility to use some of those resources in the way that best suits the local area. That is certainly our desire as well.
Mr. Lilley mentioned the Health and Safety Executive and the role of industry in paying for the inquiry. In response, I can say that it is likely that the HSE and the Environment Agency will seek to recover some costs from industry, much as we seek to recover legal costs from losing parties, but of course that does not compromise the integrity or the independence of the investigation by Lord Newton and his board. The position is very much as one would expect and as has been the case in similar circumstances across the country.
Mr. Gauke mentioned PFOS. As I said, I will ensure that we provide him with more information in writing. Dan Rogerson asked an interesting question about gold command. I do not know the details of what happened at the time, but my own recent experiences of crises and our experience in government is that gold command usually knows best, and we need to rely on that local expertise. I imagine that that was the case at Buncefield as well.
In conclusion, a great deal has happened, but I hear what the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead—the local Member of Parliament—and other hon. Members have to say. I think that there would be real benefit in having the meeting with the Minister for Local Government and doing that sooner rather than later.