Environment (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 24th October 1995.

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Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen 5:18 pm, 24th October 1995

I congratulate the Scottish National party on initiating the debate, and the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on her speech. I have no hesitation about doing that; as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) said, we should approach this subject on a non-party basis.

I should like to pursue a point made by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), who mentioned the industrial legacy that has been left in the west of Scotland, particularly in the central belt, as a result of the industrial revolution. The position in my constituency is similar to that in Dumfries. A chemical-producing company, Whites, operated in the Rutherglen area for around 150 years. During that time, the factory dumped its chromium waste not only all over Cambuslang and Rutherglen but over a wide area of south and south-east Glasgow.

Folk did not realise at the time the damage that can be done by such waste. I was born and brought up just a couple of hundred yards from that factory and used to play in the streams and the burns adjacent to it, despite the fact that the burn ran all sorts of colours as a result of the chemicals dumped in it. One did not realise the dangers at the time; it was only in later years that one realised the environmental mess that the place was in.

That company was castigated by no less than Keir Hardie around the turn of the century for its working practices and cavalier attitude towards the safety and environmental conditions in which the workers did their trade. My own knowledge of that company is further enhanced by the fact that my grandfather, four uncles, numerous cousins and my own brother worked there. It got to the stage in that factory where workers had chromium holes burnt into their skin through working with the chromium waste, which eventually was dumped all over Cambuslang and Rutherglen.

Eventually, the company moved away from Rutherglen and ended up out of business. I have tried to pursue its legal responsibilities and liabilities but am advised by legal opinion that there is no way in which I can do so. It has left a legacy in my constituency, and in adjacent constituencies, of chromium waste sites, which are now fenced off and barred to the public, with signs on them, saying, "Danger. Keep Out." These are not small, isolated sites; they are sites on which houses are built, and community halls and large secondary schools are built adjacent to them. There is a host of such sites throughout the area.

We came to realise that hexavelant chromium was lying in the sites, but, to its credit, Glasgow district council—with which I am not always in tune—commissioned a survey by Dames and Moore, which cost upwards of £150,000, so that it could get the facts and figures, not hearsay and ad hoc comments.

The survey outlined in specific detail what was wrong with each of the sites, and each category of chromium waste contamination of the sites. That has caused great worry and concern in the area about health. Four or five years ago, it was proven that there was an abnormal rise in the number of leukaemia cases in the Cambuslang area. The health board, at my instigation, carried out an investigation and confirmed that there was an abnormal blip in the number of leukaemia cases, but it could not link it to the chromium waste sites. In similar circumstances, it had found no explanation for the rise in leukaemia cases in different areas in Scotland.

Although I accept that it has not been proven, and I use that phrase advisedly, that cancer can be caused by these chromium waste sites, the fact that they exist and have been categorised by Greater Glasgow health board as causing health risks—that has been proven—heightens apprehension in the area.

Although one or two individuals in organisations have been over the top in scaremongering on this issue, I do not blame any family who is concerned about the health risk for children. I stay only five minutes walk from one of these sites. Families are quite right to be concerned and to pressurise and harass me to try to get something done. I, in turn, am passing the matter on to the Scottish Office. I do not blame folk for being concerned about the health risks. Greater Glasgow health board concedes that these sites are health risks if the chromium waste is disturbed; the dust can be breathed in, which can cause health problems. Problems can be caused if the chromium is touched. If young children play on the sites and then put their hands in their mouth, swallowing the chromium can also cause them health risks.

I have pursued this environmental disaster with the Glasgow development agency and Scottish Enterprise, to which I had been referred by Scottish Office Ministers. The local enterprise councils made the point that they had no funding to take care of the sites. I then went to the paymasters—the Scottish Office Ministers—who said that there was an allocation for Scottish Enterprise and the Glasgow development agency to take care of the sites, at least to make a start. But then I came up against a policy that said that remedial work should be carried out on such sites only if there was an economic end use. It is quite wrong that people's health should be put at risk purely and simply because some bureaucrat in the Scottish Office says that, because there is no economic end use to remedial work sites, no work should be carried out.

I would like to record without hesitation the valuable support and encouragement that were given to me by the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) when he was a Scottish Office Minister, and the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who was extremely helpful in trying to process grants.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary revealed a change of policy on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency when he said that it would have the ability and powers to tackle these contaminated waste sites. I hope that I can get some clarification from Ministers that the criteria of economic end use will no longer be applied to any work to remedy sites that have been contaminated in this way.

It was quite right that I paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Dumfries and to the hon. Member for Eastwood, but my meeting in Dover house, Whitehall with the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), was like bashing my head against a brick wall. That is the only description that I can apply to it. With me was Mr. Brian Kelly, Glasgow district council's director of environmental health. He was a totally neutral public servant. He was so exasperated that he asked the then Secretary of State whether someone would have to die or be proven to be seriously ill before he would act and give us some resources to try to get something done about the sites.

There are, unfortunately, swathes of land in the west of Scotland that are contaminated, but my constituency and surrounding areas are the only areas of Scotland that are contaminated by chromium waste. No precedent would be set by the Scottish Office in ensuring that resources were given for tackling this drastic problem in my area.

Recently, Scottish Enterprise allocated around £150,000 to Glasgow district council for experimental work in each of the sites to find the best solution for each site. That is certainly useful, but there was no commitment—I fully understand that—from Scottish Enterprise to make a start and to allocate the millions of pounds that will be required to make all the sites safe. I am a realist and am not looking for £20 million immediately, but I think that it is right that the Scottish Office, in conjunction with the unitary authority of South Lanarkshire and with Europe should combine different pots of money to tackle the problem. I know that not one pot of money is available to tackle it, but if there is good will and co-operation, the Government should co-operate and contribute other pots of money to tackle it.

There is hope that some of the sites will be tackled fairly soon because of the planned extension of the M74, which will run from Fullerton to the Kingston bridge. I emphasise that that is an extension, not a new motorway, and it is crazy that one small section should not be completed. I make no apology for supporting the M74 extension. It is right to do so.

There are potential benefits in that the motorway route runs through or adjacent to a number of chromium-contaminated sites. Those sites will be tackled as part of the motorway extension. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Dumfries, who initially suggested that, although the motorway extension might not be planned to go ahead for another couple of years, the associated works which will remedy the sites should be brought forward and the money spent now. That would considerably reduce the number of contaminated sites and reduce the amount of money required. That is a reasonable point of view, and I hope to obtain the co-operation of the Scottish Office on that issue.

I shall await a reply from the Minister and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on whether the requirement of an economic end use before contaminated sites are treated has now been removed and whether the sites to which I have referred, which have "only" environmental and health risk factors to be taken into account, can be included.

I make no party political point, but the Under-Secretary said that the Government were leading the way in treating Scotland's environment properly. I extend an open invitation to all Scottish Office Ministers to come to my constituency to see the sites and the scale of the problem there and to say whether they would like to have such areas in their constituencies, fenced off as a health risk to the public. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who has already come to my constituency at short notice. I invite Ministers then to look me and my constituents in the face and say that there is no way in which they can help. I look forward to receiving assistance.