I am sure that the House will, first of all, wish to join me in expressing my deepest sympathy with those bereaved and injured by this sad accident. One person died as a result of the explosion and I understand that another is seriously injured and in hospital.
British Gas emergency staff were on site investigating a disturbance on the road surface when the explosion occurred and two houses were extensively damaged. The main in the road subsequently caught fire. A full investigation is being made into all the circumstances and I have asked for a report on the outcome as quickly as possible.
I join the Minister in expressing deep sympathy to the family of the elderly lady, Mrs. Grace Lancaster, who lost her life, to those whose houses have been damaged and also to those who have been affected by this tragic accident.
Will the Minister give an assurance to the House that following the investigation a full report will be made and that it will be made public? Will the Minister indicate what compensation is available to those whose properties have been destroyed? Is the Minister aware that the gas engineers took some time to locate and switch off the valve, that for some period the road in front of these houses was alight and that the fire services had to hose the adjoining houses to ensure that they did not catch fire? Further, will he indicate what assistance might be available to the families which have lost their houses, pending the rebuilding of those houses?
I noted what the hon. Gentleman said and will try to deal with his points as best I can. At this stage the house would not expect me to comment on any question of culpability or liability. I assure the hon. Gentleman that British Gas is as anxious as I am and as he is to establish the facts as quickly as possible. The appropriate lessons will be deduced as quickly as possible and the information will be made available.
I shall go no further because it would not be wise to comment too fully at this stage on the position before ascertaining the facts, which we shall do.
Will my hon. Friend not agree that this sad occurrence strengthens the argument that he and I once used, that in matters of this kind the Gas Corporation should be placed under an absolute liability instead of the limited liability under which it exists at present?
I grasp the point that my hon. Friend has made. However, we have not yet established the facts. It will be for another Government Department or for the House to establish questions of legality, on which, as my hon. Friend recollects, at one time he and I expressed a view. However, it is too early yet to establish the point that he is trying to make.