Canvey Island

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1978.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I do not expect that I shall see many hon. Members during the course of the day, so may I say now that I hope that we shall all have a good recess and that I look forward to seeing the House on 24th October.

12.4 p.m.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Essex South East

It may be thought that as I rise to do battle on behalf of my endangered constituents on Canvey Island we have already gained our first objective. The news that Occidental International Oil has decided to defer indefinitely the building of its refinery on the island is encouraging, but that does not mean that a serious threat to our environment is removed. It is merely suspended.

The decision is not surprising, as the latest figures I have managed to extract from the Department of Energy show that the use of gross refinery capacity in this country is running at only 67 per cent. As everyone knows, there is excessive refining capacity throughout western Europe. For the time being, therefore, there is no need for any new refineries in this country.

However, Canvey is still threatened with a second unwanted refinery. Indeed, the company which has planning permission to build it—United Refineries Ltd—has indicated publicly that it wishes to go ahead.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that the present dangers facing my 33,000 constituents on Canvey stem not from those two proposed refineries, neither of which is operating, but from the existing petrochemical complex in nearby Thurrock and on the island itself from the largest concentration of gas, chemical and oil storage in the country, much of it dangerously close to their homes.

Nowhere else in Britain is so large a population exposed to so unique, so massive and so varied a concentration of risks to their safety The position is unique precisely because Canvey is an island. If anything should go wrong—and the possible scenarios for disaster are legion—the only escape route is provided by two roads which converge at a single roundabout. Even that could be put out of commission by a cloud of escaping gas, as it lies in the path of the prevailing winds blowing over the Thurrock petrochemical complex.

It does not take much imagination to see why my constituents have been so bitterly opposed from the beginning to the bringing of oil refineries on to their already endangered island, with the consequent increase in the movement of ships carrying hazardous cargoes to and from its jetties and of tanker vehicles carrying a wide variety of toxic and inflammable liquids on its roads, for all this would add immeasurably to the hazards they already face.

For example, there are already 56,000 movements a year of hazardous material on Canvey's roads. The proposed oil refineries would add another 65,000. We have just seen in Spain what can happen when a single liquefied petroleum tanker blows up.

Understandably, therefore, my Canvey constituents have been bitterly opposed to the introduction of oil refineries from the beginning. Yet until 1974 it proved impossible to get the mandarins in Whitehall to take any notice of our anxieties. No Minister or senior civil servant charged with responsibilities in this matter ever came to Canvey. Public inquiries to hear our objections were an expensive farce.

That is why I was driven on the night of 23rd-24th July 1974 to hold up the business of the House by making the longest speech from the Back Benches for over a century. My purpose was to shake the Government out of their extraordinary complacency. By that means I was able to put on the record the hazards which my constituents face.

As a result, the late Anthony Crosland—I give him full credit—realised that there was a case to answer. He set up an exploratory inquiry into the possibility of revoking planning permission for one of the two unwanted refineries. It was our first breakthrough.

That inquiry, held in February/March 1975, came down firmly on our side. It recommended revocation. It also recommended, as I had hoped it would, expert investigation into the totality of risks facing the people who live in and around Canvey Island, from both the existing installations and the proposed refineries.

Alas, that provided the Government with an excuse not to do anything about revocation until the expert investigation had been completed. After some delay, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Employment directed the Health and Safety Executive to make an investigation, the first of its kind ever to be undertaken in this country.

That was a welcome development. The investigation, which began in April 1976, was expected to be completed by the end of the year. In the event, it was not completed until April this year, and the findings were not made public until 20th June.

We learn from the published report that the task proved to be far more complex than had been expected and that even now further work needs to be carried out for there remain some uncertainties in the assessment. That, as I shall presently show, is a masterly understatement.

The report is, nevertheless, an important document. It not only confirms all of our worst fears about the existing hazards at Canvey, it actually uncovers others hitherto unknown to us. Above all, it shows that the proposed oil refinery development, thrust down our throats by successive Governments, and as they were planned before the investigation began, would have added significantly to the existing hazards. It proves beyond any doubt that risks have been taken recklessly by Ministers with the safety of my constituents.

The Prime Minister was engagingly frank when in answer to me on 25th July he confessed that while he had seen the report he had not read every page of it. Let me help him, and everyone else who has responsibility in this grave matter, by spelling out precisely what the report says about the threat to the safety of my constituents.

First, it makes plain that the existing risks from gas, oil and chemical installations already operating in the area, stretching for nine miles from Stanfordle-Hope in the west to Canvey in the east are undeniable, unacceptable, and must be reduced.

Second, it admits that, given the huge concentration of dangerous and flammable liquids stored in that area, in the event of an explosion disrupting storage tanks burning liquid could reach people's homes, spreading fire and destruction.

Third, it shows that assumptions hitherto made about the behaviour of escaping ammonia are wrong and that, given certain weather conditions, a spillage could kill people if prompt evacuation could not be arranged.

Fourth, it expresses serious doubts about the large quantities of liquefied gases transhipped and stored at the British Gas Corporation's methane terminal close to people's homes.

Fifth, it describes the terrifying possibilities of liquefied petroleum gas at the terminal escaping from tankers, forming a large cloud of flammable mixture which could ignite and explode, causing casualties.

Sixth, it admits the possibility of large clouds of gas vapour drifting towards residential areas before being ignited, either as a result of an accident at one of the land-based installations or as the result of a collision between a liquid gas tanker and vessels in the estuary or at the jetties.

Seventh, it warns that if an accidental release of gas took place no action could be taken to lessen the probability of explosion leading to cataclysmic fire and casualties.

Eighth, it draws attention to the network of pipes criss-crossing these installations, carrying liquefied gases. When one recalls how the above-ground explosion at Flixborough fractured below-ground pipes—a fact which I drew to the attention of the Government twice, on 12th and 23rd May 1975—it is not difficult to see how a veritable holocaust could be created.

Ninth, the report lists a miscellany of other dangers, such as an accidental release of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride from the Thurrock oil refineries which, in certain concentrations, could kill people. It speaks of the blowing up of one storage tank and metal splinters from it piercing other tanks and pipes, setting off a train of disaster. For full measure it mentions the possibility of an explosion involving vessels loading TNT and munitions at the Chapman anchorage at the eastern tip of Canvey.

Tenth, it reveals that none of the companies in the area: had made a systematic attempt to examine and document those few potentially serious events which might cause accidents among people in the surrounding community". That begs the question why such neglect has been permitted for so long and whether similar neglect is not being practised elsewhere in the country.

The report then makes a number of sensible and practical suggestions for reducing this frightening array of hazards. For example, it suggests that low containment walls should be constructed around the hazardous installations; that protective bunds should be built around tanks containing hazardous liquids, that a water spray system should be introduced to dilute hydrogen fluoride released accidentally into the atmosphere. It suggests that a new road should be built on the western side of the island to carry hazardous tanker traffic. The report has already compelled British Gas to close a pipeline carrying liquefied petroleum gas. All of that is good. I welcome it. I am satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive has the power to insist on such works being undertaken.

The report argues that if all these suggestions and others are carried out the risks can be reduced by 50 per cent., probably even by 75 per cent. If we take those figures on trust, it means that even after all the suggested improvements are made the people of Canvey will still face above-average risks to their safety.

If the report had stopped there it would have performed a useful service. But, incredible as it may sound, it goes on to conclude that the proposed oil refinery development, subject to certain improvements, would not add significantly to the risks and can therefore proceed. That is a lunatic conclusion. To tell a community that has been in danger of injury and death from such a terrifying concentration of hazards that its chances of survival can now be reduced by half or even three-quarters, but to say that two fresh hazards can be introduced, not only gives people no comfort at all but defies all reason and makes a nonsense of much of the investigation.

That is how my constituents feel about it. On 27th June I wrote as follows to the Prime Minister: Last night I presided over a public meeting on Canvey Island at which the authors of the report faced an audience of about a thousand local people and totally failed to convince them that their conclusion that further oil refinery development would not significantly add to the risks fitted the terrifying facts which their investigation had uncovered. I told the Prime Minister: The anger and frustration of the people of Canvey and neighbouring South Benfleet over the way in which their health and safety has been persistently ignored in the past by piecemeal planning decisions, and in their view is now to be compromised in the future, was made very clear. The fact that the report recommends measures which could reduce the totality of risk by 50 per cent. or more is fully appreciated, but there is not a single one of my constituents who believes that, in the face of what the report says about the risks, the Government has any right to permit oil refinery development to take place, even after the suggested improvements have been made. I concluded: I beg of you to intervene to see that commonsense prevails. Public opinion in south-east Essex is now fully aroused. On 17th July the Castle Point district council declared its continued oppostion to any refinery development on the island whatsoever, and passed a resolution calling upon the Secretary of State: to revoke the planning permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. in accordance with his Inspector's recommendation at the exploratory inquiry in 1975. The totally illogical and irresponsible conclusion of the Health and Safety Executive report on the subject of refinery development has caused me—and I hope everyone else, especially Ministers—to look very closely at the rest of this strange report. I am bound to say that I find serious flaws in it.

First, the report has all the marks of a task not completed, being firm in some matters and weak and indecisive in others. I conclude that its authors were under considerable pressure from vested interests.

Second, the report is totally unconvincing on the scale of risk to the residents. The area studied stretches for nine miles from west to east and is two-and-a-half miles wide at its widest. The report says that in this area people are three times more at risk than elsewhere in the kingdom. But a child could see that this totally ignores the far greater risk to families living next door to, say the British Gas terminal. Here the risk is vastly greater, probably 10 times greater.

Third, it is exceedingly odd that an investigation which cost £400,000 of taxpayers' money should result in a document that has a vital appendix missing. Yet that is the case. One can look in vain for appendix 10. I had to table two parliamentary Questions to establish that the missing appendix was a paper prepared by the British Gas Corporation on "The possibility and consequences of an unconfined explosion involving LNG"— a not irrelevant or unimportant matter, one would have thought, in the context of the investigation. Yet the Minister's answer was that its inclusion was thought to be "inappropriate".

I can well understand that view being taken since the appendix—which I have now seen—shows that the British Gas Corporation takes the dangers of LNG far more lightly than is currently the case, for example, in the United States. The Corporation's experts, for example, believe that LNG cannot be involved in unconfined explosions and that the hazard need hardly be considered. It would certainly have been embarrassing for the corporation to be seen to be making light of so serious a matter I can well understand why the appendix was omitted. All I can tell the House is that the criteria of risk to people in the United States, laid down by the Federal Power Commission in turning down an LNG site there, are such that if applied in this country the Canvey methane terminal would be shut down tomorrow. Thus, I find the attitude of the Health and Safety Executive towards the British Gas Corporation activities at Canvey disappointing in the extreme.

Those activities, we are told on page 29 of the report, account for about a third of the total risks from the existing installations and their proportion will be about the same when all the improvements suggested by the team have been made. The report goes on: We have serious doubts whether the British Gas Corporation should continue to store such large amounts of LNG and LPG, at the terminal and to carry out the consequential ship to shore transfer operations. If the storage of such large quantities is to continue it will be necessary for action to be considered to meet the suggestions of the team, so that the risks could be significantly reduced Instead of a carefully considered public response from British Gas, we get a defiant roar from its chairman, Sir Denis Rooke.

In the Evening Echo—our local newspaper—of 27th July, he is reported to have said: No LPG is being handled on our installations at Canvey. But that does not mean that we would never handle it again In the same report, another spokesman for British Gas was quoted as saying: We haven't any plans to store LPG on Canvey at the moment, but we cannot say what will happen in the future…We do keep LNG on Canvey, but that is something else entirely Hon. Members will see, however, that the report states categorically on pages 20 and 29 that LPG is stored at Canvey. Who, then is telling the truth? If in fact LPG is being stored there, close to people's homes, and British Gas is trying to conceal the fact, should it not be removed forthwith? My constituents and I want a very clear answer to that question.

Let me explain why this issue has to be faced. In the United States, where they have vastly more LPG and LNG installations than we have in this country, serious attention has been given to the dangers of storing LNG close to urban population. I have seen the evidence given at an inquiry two years ago by Dr. Edward Teller, one of the world's greatest nuclear scientists and an acknowledged authoritv on the safety of nuclear installations.

Dr. Teller told a committee of the California state legislature that with LNG installations there is always the possibility of an "enormous conflagration", that although the complexities in the case of nuclear and LNG risks are comparable, much less is known about the latter, and he warned that all possible precautions should be taken. Similar warnings are given in a massive report to the United States Congress on the safety of liquefied gases, which was published on Monday by the Comptroller-General of the United States General Accounting Office, the investigating arm of Congress. His office has kindly sent me a copy.

That report states that a major spill of liquefied gases in a densely populated area could result in a catastrophe and that action should be taken now to protect the public. It makes strong recommendations and it issues this warning: We believe that future large-scale unified energy gas facilities should be located away from densely populated areas, that any such existing facilities should not be permitted to expand in size or in use, and that urban facilities should be carefully evaluated in order to ensure that they do not pose undue risks to the public. Canvey is a built-up area. Some people live very close to the methane terminal. Yet the Health and Safety Executive report contents itself with saying that if the storage of such large quantities of LNG is necessary, action will have to be taken so that the risks can be "significantly reduced". That implies, does it not, that the existing risks are significantly greater than they should be.

The intentions of British Gas are clear enough. In a letter to me which I received this morning, the chairman indicates that, subject, of course, to the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive, it is the corporation's intention to go on importing the same quantities of Algerian LNG for years to come. Do the Government approve of that? Who is to judge the need to store liquefied gases on Canvey? Is British Gas a law unto itself? Or is the question to be determined by the Health and Safety Executive, which is answerable to Ministers?

Far better it would have been if British Gas had been told in the report quite firmly that it is wrong to go on storing such large amounts of LNG and LPG so close to people's homes. Why such timidity? I issue a plain warning to the Government. No one has the right to imperil the safety of a whole community.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the Health and Safety report is its total neglect—indeed its astonishing neglect—of the human reaction in the event of disaster or even in a limited incident. Because Canvey is an island, evacuation of population would take several hours. That would be possible nowadays in the event of flooding, when several hours' warning of unusual tides can be given. I need not remind the House that in 1953 the island was the worst-hit district in the flooded areas of Eastern England, when we lost 53 lives, so we are particularly sensitive on that subject But clearly it is impossible to give hours of warning in the event of explosions leading to a cataclysmic fire.

Just imagine the chaos that could be caused by people trying to get off the island over a single exit while the rescue services from the mainland were trying to get on. The only suggestion that the report offers is that in the majority of the disaster situations it envisages, people should stay indoors and shut their windows. Who, pray, is going to give such advice if a methane cloud is moving rapidly towards the residential area, or if there has been an involuntary release of ammonia, or if LPG is exploding? Who is going to have the time in which to issue such a warning?

There is a hint in the report that to help evacuation an additional road might be provided off the island to the east. That is an interesting suggestion. Of course, it would take some time to build. Yet there is no firm recommendation in the report. The matter is merely left for discussion with the local authorities. That simply will not do. The Government must take firm control of the situation. I therefore seek explicit assurances on the following points.

The first is that all the suggested improvements in the report will be implemented without delay.

The second is that a revised assessment is made by the Health and Safety Executive of the risks to people living very close to the major hazards, so that nobody is allowed to shelter behind generalised assumptions about risks over the whole of the area investigated.

The third is that immediate steps will be taken to reduce sharply the storage and transhipment of liquefied gases at the methane terminal, and that discussions will be opened at once with the British Gas Corporation about moving its operations to another site remote from population.

The fourth is that the British Gas Corporation is asked to spend some part of its massive profits on realistic research into the dangers of LNG and the problems of decommissioning the storage tanks on Canvey in the light of world-wide experience in these matters.

The fifth is that talks are opened at once with the object of improving road communications with the Essex mainland, especially at the eastern end of the island, and that the necessary finance will be forthcoming to the highway authority.

The sixth is that the Port of London Authority be directed to pay serious attention to the desirability of slowing down to eight knots all ships carrying hazardous cargoes in the Thames estuary. I do not need to tell the Under-Secretary of State that all the shipping carrying such cargoes in the estuary passes very close to the Essex shore.

The seventh is that the financial implications of revocation of planning permission are grasped by the Secretary of State, since the district council would be totally unable to meet any claims for compensation.

The final one is that some kind of periodic safety audit is authorised so that Parliament, the local authorities and the public can be kept informed as to how the safety of the people living in and around Canvey Island has been improved.

Nothing short of these requirements will satisfy me or restore the confidence of my long-suffering constituents. I am asking for common sense action now. I do not want to be the man who was proved right after a disaster has occurred. ask the House to remember Aberfan, where 116 children and eight adults lost their lives in 1966. They need not have died had those who knew that the tip at Merthyr Vale colliery was unsafe had done something about it. The report on that tragic happening made it clear that it need not and should not have happened.

The tragedy of Aberfan and that at Flixborough sprang from a single neglected source of danger. At Canvey there are innumerable sources of danger, each compounding the rest. So my last words to the Minister are these—act now, act before it is too late; act with firmness and purpose; delay no longer.

12.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) as he said in the speech that he has just delivered, has on several occasions drawn the attention of the House to the concern of many of the residents of Canvey Island about the possible dangers which arise from the proximity of various industrial complexes to residential development. The issues are complex. It is right that they should be thoroughly explored and that decisions for the future should be taken on the basis of as comprehensive an assessment as it is possible to make of potential hazards. I want to try to deal with as many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised as I can. Some of them, as he will understand, are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

The hon. Gentleman has given the background to this matter and I will not go over the whole ground again. The essential points are that two companies, Occidental Refineries Limited and United Refiners Limited, have been granted planning permissions to construct oil refineries on the west side of Canvey Island. In the case of Occidental, substantial development had taken place before work stopped as a result of the oil crisis in 1975.

In 1974, following anxiety locally about the safety implications of the proposed developments, the then Secretary of State for the Environment decided to hold an exploratory public inquiry into the desirability of revoking the planning permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. in 1973. The inquiry took place on the island in February and March 1974. The inspector recommended that a revocation order should be made, but one of the assessors had suggested that a study should be made of the totality of risks in the area, and the possibility of interaction between installations in the event of fire or explosion. The Secretary of State deferred a decision and, with the then Secretary of State for Employment, asked the Health and Safety Commission to carry out a study on the safety of installations within the Canvey area.

The report, which was published on 20th June, describes an exhaustive investigation of the risks to health and safety from the existing and proposed installations on and in the neighbourhood of Canvey Island. The investigating team of experts visited the various industrial installations to carry out a detailed in- vestigation of what goes on in each plant, what could go wrong and what the possible effects would be. They also looked at the proposals for additional refining facilities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member in the House on 20th June, welcomed the report as a valuable contribution to discussion of health and safety and environmental matters in the area. He pointed out that installations covered by the report form a significant part of the United Kingdom oil, gas and petrochemical industries and relate closely to the utilisation of our North Sea resources. The report would therefore be of importance in assisting decisions which may affect those who live in the area, those who depend on the installations for their employment, and the contribution which the installations make to the economy.

The recent investigation was, of course, concerned with the safety of existing installations as well as the proposed refinery developments, and on that side a number of specific recommendations for action now have emerged from the inquiry, and these are already being followed up by the Health and Safety Executive.

There are three existing installations on Canvey Island handling potentially dangerous materials whose activities were investigated by the team. They are the British Gas Corporation's methane gas terminal, and tank farms owned respectively by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited. Certain installations on the mainland which could present a threat to the island were also investigated, as was the movement of dangerous substances in the area by road, rail, pipeline and water. Each of these activities was the subject of close inquiry, situations which could lead to a number of casualties were identified, and estimates were made of the probability of an accident occurring and of its consequences in terms of the number of casualties. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the risks, and I fully understand his concern for the people who are living in the area.

It is important to bear in mind that an accident which is regarded as capable of causing a large number of casualties will not necessarily result in such massive consequences, nor does the consideration given to particular accident imply that the chances of their happening are necessarily very high. Throughout the study the investigating team was requested by the Health and Safety Executive to err on the side of pessimism in its estimates. The overall assessment resulting from all this investigation was summed up by the Health and Safety Executive, which said that the picture was not one which ought to result in fear and worry among people living in and around Canvey. The most likely outcome, in the view of the HSE experts, is that nothing should happen in the industrial installations in the area which will hurt anyone outside them.

Nevertheless, the study showed that certain actions needed to be taken in regard to the installations which were investigated. Indeed, one of the positive results to emerge from all the inquiries, analyses, and so on, is the series of specific recommendations relating to the existing installations. During the course of the investigation certain matters came to light which required immediate action. These were dealt with as they arose in the usual way in accordance with the health and safety legislation.

By the end of its investigation the team had identified various ways in which the risks from the existing installations could be further reduced. These are detailed in the report, and I understand that discussions have already begun between Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive and senior management of the firms concerned in order to secure the necessary improvements. I will say a little more about those affecting the installations on the island itself.

At the British Gas Corporation terminal the team has suggested that the pipeline from the terminal that contains liquefied petroleum gas could be emptied and taken out of service. It also suggested that the capacities of the existing containment walls around the boundaries of the tank farms of inflammable liquids at the sites owned by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited should be increased.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Essex South East

I am following with the greatest interest what the Minister is saying. Since a suggestion has been made that the liquefied petroleum gas pipeline should be closed, as I under- stand it has, will the Minister confirm that there is liquefied petroleum gas stored at the terminal, and that the statement made by the chairman of British Gas and another spokesman to the press is totally inaccurate?

Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich

I think I can confirm that liquefied petroleum gas is stored at the terminal. I think that that is correct, although I do not speak with authority, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, on that point.

Recommendations were made in a similar way in regard to the installations on the mainland. On the movement of vessels in the Thames, the PLA is urged to take action to ensure that the 8-knot speed limit for all vessels in the Thames estuary is strictly observed.

The Health and Safety Executive is satisfied that all these suggestions could, it necessary, be required under the general duties imposed by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. It is now for the firms, or other bodies concerned, either to carry out the improvements detailed above or to show that equal standards of safety could be achieved by alternative methods.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Essex South East

It is very good of the hon. Gentleman to give way. On the question of the restriction of speed of vessels carrying hazardous cargoes, is the hon. Gentleman aware that on 1st August 1978 I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he would discuss with the Port of London Authority the desirability of restricting the movement at night of tankers carrying such cargoes?

The answer that I received was: No … the Port of London Authority consider that their existing arrangements ensure the safe movement of vessels whether by day or night."—[Official Report, 1st August 1978; Vol. 955, c. 300.] I understand that the Health and Safety Executive has not consulted Trinity House or the pilots on the river. If it had done so, there would have been a very clear indication that there is considerable anxiety about the hazards among those concerned with waterborne traffic. Will the Minister therefore undertake to get the PLA to look at this matter more seriously and responsibly than it appears to have done up to now?

Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this does not lie within my area of responsibility, but I shall certainly see that his request is passed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I am assured that discussions are taking place with all the firms concerned. The British Gas Corporation has already informed the Health and Safety Executive that the LPG pipeline from the methane terminal will be emptied.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of specific references to the storage of LPG at the methane terminal. I do not propose to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the reported remarks by the chairman of the Corporation, but it is clear from the report that LPG is stored at the methane terminal. However, I understand that it is largely an emergency stock reserve. The hon. Member is well aware that the Health and Safety Executive expressed serious doubts in its report about the continued storage of large amounts of liquefied natural gas and liquefield petroleum gas at the terminal and the consequential ship-to-shore transfer operations. Discussions have been opened with the Corporation about the possibility of reducing the risks from the terminal, and the Corporation's response is at present awaited. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance with regard to the LPG. The Corporation already has it in mind to reduce its stocks of LPG and is in touch with the Health and Safety Executive about the best means of doing this.

This all illustrates the very practical nature of the recommendations which have stemmed from the inquiry and which, when put into effect, will result in a very significant reduction in the estimates of risk. The Health and Safety Executive's conclusion is that, subject to a satisfactory outcome of the discussions currently going on, it would not consider the situation such that any of the existing installations should now be required to cease operations. I am assured that the Executive intends to keep a close watch on the situation and will not hesitate to make expeditious use of its powers to secure the improvements already mentioned, and any further improvements which appear to be necessary in the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred, perhaps somewhat scathingly, to the way in which the report dealt with the desirability of building another road. The Health and Safety Executive report suggested that appropriate authorities should study the team's assessment when considering whether another road should be built, and indicated that the Executive proposed to have further discussions with appropriate authorities about the value of a new road and about emergency planning generally. That seems to me to have been a reasonable approach. After all, the team is not expert in road and traffic matters.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in reply to a Question from the hon. Gentleman on 17th July, those discussions are now taking place. It is the local authorities who are responsible in the first instance, but my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will study the results of the discussions which are now taking place as soon as they are available.

On the question of the proposed new refineries to be constructed by Occidental Ltd. and United Refineries Ltd., the Health and Safety Executive report made it clear that there were ways in which the additional risk resulting from the projects could be very substantially reduced, notably by providing a new pipeline for transhipment of liquid petroleum gas and a suitable water spray system in the proposed alkylation unit at the Occidental refinery. The report concluded that provided the companies were to build their plants in accordance with the requirements and to make appropriate arrangements for transhipment of liquid petroleum gas, there would be no objection on health and safety grounds. It is important to bear in mind the proviso The report does not merely say that on health and safety grounds the new refinery facilities could be built: it stipulates that if they are built they must be built in accordance with the Executive's requirements and significant improvements which would be required are expressly stated.

But, of course, planning decisions rest not with the Health and Safety Executive but with the local planning authorities and, in some cases, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, and in reaching any planning decisions with regard to future development in the area they will have full regard to the report. Since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to exercise a quasi-judicial function in relation to the planning cases before him, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot say anything at this stage about the merits of the various arguments that are being advanced for or against the proposed developments. But I can say that my right hon. Friend will carefully consider all relevant representations made before he comes to a decision.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from the reply which my right hon. Friend gave to his Question yesterday, it is my right hon. Friend's intention to reopen the earlier exploratory inquiry into whether the permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. should be revoked. This will enable interested parties to comment afresh in the light of the Health and Safety Executive report. The hon. Gentleman said that the conclusion in the report about the building of new refineries was illogical. It will be open to those who oppose the project to argue this at the public inquiry. We shall be in touch with the company and the local planning authority about the arrangements for reopening the inquiry.

As the hon. Gentleman may have seen in the press, Occidental has been reconsidering the commercial aspects of its proposed developments in the area, and has decided at the present time not to go ahead. My Department has been told by the company that it is the company's intention to withdraw its appeal, and so my right hon. Friend is not now rearranging the postponed inquiry into this appeal.

As I have said, these arrangements will ensure that my right hon. Friend will be able to make his decision in the light of the new knowledge provided in the HSE report and of the observations of interested parties on it. It seems to me important to stress that, by arranging for this very complex and detailed investigation to be undertaken by the HSE, the Government have proved their determination to show, as in the case of Windscale, that important planning decisions should be taken in full knowledge of all the implications for those likely to be affected.

The hon. Gentleman closed his speech by calling for a number of explicit assurances. As I am sure he appreciates, most of them bear on matters which are not the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. In so far as the interests of other Secretaries of State are concerned, I shall, of course, bring the relevant points to their attention. Meanwhile I would stress that the Health and Safety Executive is already holding discussions about all the improvements suggested in the report with either the firms concerned or the appropriate authorities.

On the risks to people living close to major hazards, the method adopted by the team was to select specific regions for assessment of the risks, and no fewer than five of those were on Canvey Island itself, all comparatively close to the three installations on the island. Research into the behaviour of fuel gases is in hand and account is being taken of experience world wide, including the report of the General Accounting Office to the United States Congress, which, although published as recently as last Monday, is already being studied by the Health and Safety Executive, as indeed it appears to be by the hon. Gentleman. The recommendations in that report mentioned by the hon. Gentleman refer to the siting of new terminals and expansion of existing ones.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman has already been assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment—but I am glad to repeat the assurance—that he and the other hon. Members concerned, as well as the appropriate local authorities, will be kept informed at regular intervals of progress on the implementation of the report.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

Before the Minister sits down, may I ask whether he feels that, in view of the very detailed requests put by him, my hon. Friend is entitled to an assurance that he will get answers from the various Ministers with whom the Minister will want to confer? The Minister said that he would refer these matters to his colleagues, I understand that, as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend. But it would be appropriate that my hon. Friend should know that answers will be forthcoming from Government sources to his specific questions.

Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. In so far as I have not been able to answer the hon. Member for Essex, South-East, I can give the assurance that where questions have been put my right hon. Friends will see that replies are given him. As I indicated at the end of my speech, it is our intention to keep the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House, informed of progress.

12.50 p.m.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Essex South East

With permission I should like to say a few more words. I thank the Minister for the courteous and effective way in which he has tried to answer my questions this morning. I realise, of course, that a number of matters do not fall within his province, and I am grateful, therefore, to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) for extracting a promise that I shall get detailed answers later to all my questions.

I am not reflecting in any way on the way in which the Minister has sought to answer me, but I fear that there is one matter on which he did not touch. This is so serious that I must draw attention to it again.

The assessment by the Health and Safety Executive of the degree of risk to people living in the area is an overall assessment. The area investigated is nine miles long and two and a half miles wide at its widest. Common sense shows that if people in the area generally are at three times greater risk than the rest of the population from an industrial accident, those who live very close to the methane terminal—in fact on its doorstep—are more exposed to danger than those who live, for example, two miles away.

I specifically asked for a revised assessment by the Executive of the risks to people who live very close to this major hazard. Perhaps the Minister was not equipped by his advisers to answer this point this morning, but the answer is of paramount importance to the people of Canvey who have to live with these hazards day in and day out. I think, therefore, that a fresh assessment should be made of the risks to which these people are exposed.

I gather from the Minister's reply and from the letter that I received from the chairman of the British Gas Corporation this morning that there is no intention whatsoever of closing down the British Gas terminal on Canvey Island and that the Corporation will be permitted to continue importing the same quantities of LNG and LPG as it has done up to now. I have already given an example of the way in which the chairman of the British Gas Corporation tried to fool the public by saying that no LPG was being handled at that terminal. I am glad to hear from the Minister this morning, a fact confirmed to me by the Health and Safety Executive and the petroleum licensing authority, that that statement is untrue.

There is LPG being stored on Canvey Island close to people's homes. It is being stored with no particular object in mind. It is a hazard and it should be removed. I want an assurance from the Minister that steps will be taken to remove such material from Canvey Island.

The sooner the British Gas Corporation is told that in the end it is answerable to this House as a public corporation and takes heed of people's anxieties and fears about the liquefied gas stored on Canvey Island, the better.

I promise to keep on and on about this until Canvey Island is made safer than it is now and safer even than is envisaged in the report when its suggested improvements have been carried out. I hope, therefore, that I shall get detailed answers to all my questions from the Department of the Environment and the other Departments involved.