Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 2:54 pm on 29th March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 2:54 pm, 29th March 2007

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who raised some important points. I believe that my constituency has the largest urban badger population in the country. I am delighted that some of them are going on holiday to Leigh-on-Sea, and I wish them well. I have about seven badgers and their young in my garden. I enjoy that; I feed them and watch them, and people come to my house to see them. They are beautiful, wonderful animals, but we must make sure that humans have rights, too. We must get the balance right. It is in the badgers' best interests that we move them as quickly as possible when there is a conflict in an urban environment, as there often is in my constituency. There are plenty of places to which we could move the badgers where they would be much better off. That would be better than allowing that conflict to get out of hand; I assure hon. Members that that is very bad for the badgers.

The safety of my constituency is threatened by the proposal of Calor and Centrica to put a massive liquefied natural gas importation plant on Canvey Island. They wish to offload LNG from ships in an increasingly busy Thames. It would then be stored in two massive tanks and fed into the gas national grid. The Health and Safety Executive highlighted the project's potential lack of safety and Calor's application was rejected. Calor has appealed, so the matter is before Ministers. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and I have obtained an undertaking from Ministers that a public inquiry will be held. Most importantly, it is to be held on Canvey Island, so that local people have direct and easy access to it.

Local opposition is strong. Canvey people have, in their thousands, signed Canvey Island Independent party's petition, organised by Dave Blackwell, which I presented in the House. As always, I put local politics aside, and congratulate Dave Blackwell and his team on their important and helpful initiative. Top marks, however, go to George Whatley and his People Against Methane team. They led the battle throughout, and organised a very professional referendum. They are true stars. We all got very wet doing the footwork on winter afternoons and evenings, but it was well worth the effort. The referendum results were astounding.

As I say, it was a very professional referendum, with sealed containers. People could vote, in private, however they wanted—either for against. The turnout was 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island. That is much more than twice the amount who would vote in any local government election, which shows that the issue has gripped people. The result was even more remarkable: of those who voted, 99.6 per cent. voted against the LNG plant. Two of the people who voted for it filled in their referendum forms with me. They were operators at the plant, and they apologised to me for how they were casting their private vote. Of course, they had no need to tell me how they voted. The result certainly cannot be challenged; it has great credibility, and it cannot be ignored.

I urge the inspector who will eventually consider the matter to give as much weight as possible to that formal measure of public opinion. I do so respectfully, because I know that the inspector will deal with the planning issues carefully and professionally, as he must. I have absolute confidence in his judgment and his great courtesy in dealing with good, local people, who will represent themselves, while the big business will, of course, employ expensive barristers and professionals to represent it. I know that the inspector will be careful to strike the right balance in the inquiry.

If the proposals go ahead, the Canvey site will become one of the very few control of major accident hazards, or COMAH, sites in the UK. Shona McIsaac, who is present on the Labour Benches, has one in her constituency, too. In the USA, such sites have a 6-mile residential homes exclusion area around them if they involve LNG. They provide that exclusion area for good reason. The incidents in Port Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, show just what can happen when an uncontrolled vapour cloud detonation takes place. That is a risk with which Canvey and Castle Point people would have to live, and there is no six-mile limit, as is mandatory in the United States—not even a one-mile safety zone—for Canvey people. The plant is literally within spitting distance of homes and schools, as it is only a few hundred yards away.

Let me paint a true picture of the risk posed. An LNG escape would freeze everything in its path. The Health and Safety Executive and the fire service have confirmed that there is no way of controlling such a spill. Indeed, I am having another meeting next Monday morning with the local fire service. At atmospheric pressure, LNG would vaporise and form a massive, growing cloud that would float and blow around in the wind, combining with air to form an unstable and highly combustible mixture. On ignition, it would explode and flash into a high-temperature fire that would destroy everything in its path. Ignition could take place simply if a car passed through the area or if someone flicked a light switch within it. The direction of such a cloud would be indeterminate beforehand, and the effects on homes and schools would be indiscriminate. Unlike at Buncefield, where the emergency services could use foam to control and contain the fire because it was fuel oil-based, not LNG-based, there is no effective firefighting strategy for an LNG incident. It would be a question of watching and following the fire, and clearing up the carnage afterwards.

Detonation may happen on Canvey Island, but it could also take place on the mainland in Benfleet or Hadleigh. A cloud could even blow over to the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Amess in Leigh, where the ground is higher, and ignite there. This is not just a Canvey Island problem—it is a south Essex issue. There are many other causes for objection. The terrorist threat is significant, although I will not go into it too deeply. The main threat, however, is from an accident. Flixborough and Buncefield were thought to be totally safe the night before they went up. We know what happened there. Indeed, the HSE Buncefield report states in consultative document CD211, section 6, "Wider implications for other major hazard sites":

"The implications...for major hazard sites need to be considered... Clearly, we have 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 LNG".

There we have it: proof positive from the HSE, no less, that we cannot declare the Canvey Island plant proposal safe.

There is only one conclusion—the appeal should be rejected, to avoid unacceptable dangers to schools and homes, not only in my constituency but elsewhere. Neither the HSE nor the Government have a policy on the safe siting of a COMAH plant, for which I have been asking for months. The inspector therefore has no formal standards against which to measure the application that he is considering. I urge the inspector, therefore, to disallow the appeal on that point alone. However, there are many other reasons to reject it, including the dire implications of flood risk for the site, and the difficulty of building the massive tanks on stilts. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West smiles, but that is a requirement for new build on Canvey Island, which is in the flood plain and, in some places, is 6 or 8 ft below sea level.

Shipping and navigation safety is an important consideration. The environmental implications are significant, too. Just for the record, the plant would confer very little local benefit on my constituents—not that that is a big issue, because there is a national need. However, there are many other effective sites for the importation of LNG that do not give rise to conflicts with other interests and that are not sited close to homes and, in particular, schools. Let there be no mistake: the application is not about national need but about corporate profits. There is nothing wrong with that, but I told Calor and Centrica at the outset that if there was a safety issue—if safety was compromised in their application—I would fight them tooth and nail. Safety is compromised, so I will fight them with every ounce of effort to stop that ill-conceived project.

The conclusions are clear. There is ample evidence of the devastation that could be caused by an incident at such a plant. There is also irrefutable evidence from the HSE, no less, that the operation of the plant cannot be guaranteed without the risk of an incident—it cannot be made fail-safe or totally safe. The Environment Agency has also confirmed that there are serious flooding risks on the site, which is another reason to reject it. There is no separation of homes and schools from the plant; there is no COMAH safe siting policy against which the inspector can measure the application and make a judgment; and there are more appropriate sites to meet the national need and the national interest. The inspector will consider all those matters very carefully. I say, with due respect to the inspector's independence in making the decision, that I hope that the proposal is rejected.

I am pleased to welcome back the Deputy Leader of the House, who is an excellent Minister—I actually congratulated him on his return last night. Will he confirm that the Trade and Industry Secretary's new policy to speed up the planning process for large scale energy sites will not be applied retrospectively to the Calor application, which is now being appealed on Canvey Island? I see that the Deputy Leader of the House has nodded, which I appreciate.

On the separate but related matter of flood defences, Canvey Island suffered more than any other community in the 1953 floods, when 58 people were killed on the island. Parts of the island, such as the Calor site, lie below sea level protected by sea walls, sea gates and, in some areas, simple earth banks. We all saw what happened last year in New Orleans, where the substantial levees were swept away in moments. That community was devastated last year, as Canvey was in 1953.

On 18 March, which is not yet two weeks ago, Canvey was at serious risk of flooding, and the sea barriers should have been closed. The Environment Agency is responsible for that, but it failed to do that simple but essential job. The Thames barrier was closed, pushing water back up the Thames towards Canvey Island, but Canvey's defences were not activated. The result was predictable—Canvey suffered flooding and damage yet again. The Echo report stated:

"Canvey was left to the mercy of raging tides which threatened to engulf it on Sunday after the Environment Agency failed to close two flood barriers, it has emerged. Barriers at Benfleet Creek and East Haven on Canvey island were left open as surging tides breached low-lying shores in Benfleet".

This time it was not on the scale of 1953, thank goodness, but that was due to divine intervention rather than Environment Agency planning or judgment. Rather foolishly, a spokesman for the Environment Agency was quoted by the Echo as saying:

"It is just one of those things."

One of my constituents described that comment as "complacent in the extreme". Another e-mailed me only yesterday to say that that demonstrates

"An enormous degree of incompetence and disinterest".

I respectfully ask the Secretary of State to undertake an inquiry into the incident and to give me a report, because I must protect the interests of the people on Canvey Island whom I represent.

Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will let me know what steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of that unacceptable failure. That is an issue on which firm and speedy action is needed, as the House will understand. I congratulate Christine Sexton of the Echo, who is the chief reporter for Castle Point, on her efforts on behalf of Castle Point people on that and other matters.

I turn to one of my traditional themes, the national health service. In the Christmas Adjournment debate, I argued that in many fields, such as hepatitis C and coronary heart disease, the NHS should make sensible preventive investments. If it were to do so, the pay-off would be enormous in terms not only of improved health and quality of life, but of cash returns for the Treasury. The Chancellor, who prides himself on prudence, should not miss such an obvious mechanism to maximise the output from the extra £8 billion that he plans to put into the NHS in 2007-08, which I welcome and on which I sincerely congratulate him. However, what matters to patients—our constituents—is output, not input. We need to ensure that we make best use of the extra money that we have been putting into the health service for some years now.

The 2006 Department of Health report, "The Musculoskeletal Services Framework", is one of the Government's better efforts. It acknowledges the scale of the problem, with 8 million to 10 million people in the UK suffering from arthritis and 206 million hours every year lost to the UK economy, at a cost of £18 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West referred to rheumatoid arthritis in his excellent remarks. We are mirroring each other's speeches fairly closely; I am afraid that that will continue. The report states:

"early diagnosis...would be very cost-effective, especially if it resulted in people being able to remain in the workforce as long as possible."

It goes on to say, however, that

"typically, a diagnosis was made approximately 18 months after symptoms first appeared" and that people with musculoskeletal conditions

"have endured some of the longest waiting times for hospital care".

It recommends structural change in the NHS to speed up progress for arthritis patients through "fragmented and incoherent services". It also pays tribute to the

"significant developments in inflammatory arthritis treatments" in recent years and concludes that

"multiple cost-effectiveness studies have now been performed to suggest that anti-TNF antibodies should be cost-effective."

Yet we find that inconsistent postcode rationing or prescribing is a serious problem for people with this disease, of whom there are many.

It is, in many ways, an excellent report that proposes dramatic improvements in treatment, with Treasury revenues as the potential prize for that forethought. However, no one has charge of delivery. We still have patchy provision of the cost-effective drugs that would cut in-patient time and reduce human suffering. The Secretary of State for Health must stop shilly-shallying, get a grip of this, and implement the recommendations in the report as soon as possible, for economic and quality of life reasons.

I will not detain the House for much longer, but will return, if I may, to one of my old chestnuts—Europe. I sincerely apologise to hon. Members who must occasionally listen to my rants on the subject; this will not be the last time, I am afraid. The Berlin declaration—a Trojan horse for the EU constitution—has provoked widespread criticism, including from my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson, who is sitting next to me. One reason for that criticism is the unilateral procedure used by the German Chancellor. The declaration was discussed in secret with EU member states. The Czech Republic envoy explained that the consultation consisted only of a single bilateral phone conversation with the German authorities, followed up with an e-mail giving the declaration's very scant content. Neither national Parliaments nor the European Parliament had sight of the wording.

That conspiratorial, smoke-filled-room approach is no way to run a chicken shed, let alone a group of countries. No people of any member state have been consulted, even though a new EU constitution has major constitutional implications. Where that is the case, it must be for the people, not the politicians, to decide such matters.