[Derek Conway in the Chair] — Buncefield Oil Depot Fire

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 19th July 2006.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup 9:30 am, 19th July 2006

Before I call Mr. Penning, I should say that as it is the hottest day of the year, it is in order for hon. Members to remove their jackets—particularly those who have not already done so.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I thank colleagues for getting up so early to come to our first debate on the Buncefield incident, and the Minister for taking the time and having the consideration to meet me yesterday to discuss the Buncefield inquiry.

At 1 minute past 6 on 11 December, an explosion registering 2.7 on the Richter scale rocked my constituency and neighbouring constituencies across Hertfordshire and the other home counties and parts of London. Tank 12 had been letting a rather large amount—200 tonnes—of unleaded fuel escape for a considerable time, and the vapour exploded in the car park areas of the Northgate and Fuji buildings on Mayland industrial estate. It was the largest explosion on mainland Europe since the second world war. Everybody accepts that the subsequent explosion and fire tested our emergency services to the extreme. We are all very proud of the absolutely fantastic job that they did.

I fully accept that the incident could not have been predicted. There had been similar, although not identical, incidents around the world, but as a former fireman, I am all too aware that no one had trained or prepared for an explosion of that magnitude or for a subsequent fire and explosions. I reiterate my admiration for the firefighters who came from all over the country to help my constituents in that national disaster.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

My hon. Friend has served his constituents with great assiduity. I am sure that this will not be the last time that he brings this matter before the House.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the great efforts and skill of the Essex fire service, which featured in the incident? Is he aware that its firemen got their skills because of the Canvey Island calor gas importation site, the first such site for liquefied natural gas in the world? It now takes liquefied petroleum gas from ships in the Thames and there is a proposal to change it so that it can take a full 5 per cent. of the nation's total energy need in LNG across Canvey Island. As everyone here will understand, that is raising local fears.

We must learn any possible lessons from the Buncefield fire. Will my hon. Friend explain later why the early detection systems at Buncefield failed to warn of the developing clouds of vapour that had been rolling around for 20 or 30 minutes prior to the explosion? That is a key point.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I should declare an interest as a former fireman, and not only in Essex. I trained on the foam monitor that protects the installation to which he refers. It was a pleasure to do a lot of training at Canvey Island and the neighbouring Coryton refineries. Some would say that I had an inside knowledge of the explosion and depot fire long before I came to this House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the expertise of the Essex brigade and others—particularly the Essex brigade, because Essex has so many refinery installations and LPG facilities—we would really have struggled. I pay tribute to the Essex fire service.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I will elaborate on the value of the safety devices at the depot, which has a knock-on effect for all depots and installations around the country. I have had the pleasure of taking some hon. Members around Buncefield to show them what happened. If any other hon. Member would like to visit, that could be arranged.

I was massively impressed with the national disaster plan that the Government have brought into force since they came into power. We could not even have tackled the Buncefield fire had not high-velocity pumps been purchased and training been done with them. Although we had major problems with water supply, the one thing that we did not have a problem with, once the high-velocity and high-powered pumps arrived, was capacity. However, we did not have the knowledge of what would happen once the firefighters started to fight the fire.

The Buncefield site is a national facility, part of almost a national grid of fuel for this nation. It was built in 1968. At the time, it was a stand-alone installation: there were very few buildings around it, although a couple of residential properties in my and neighbouring constituencies were quite close. In 1968, the decision was naturally made that the risk to properties around the site was minimal as there were so few of them. However, that is a long time ago now, and over the years there has been a substantial encroachment of building around the depot.

Some blame has been attributed to the local authority. People have asked why it gave permission for building around the Buncefield site. However, the legislation is clear: any local authority has to look at a planning application put to it. The authority had to ask permission or request information from the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether the development around the Buncefield depot was suitable and safe, and I understand from my local authority that on every occasion that it was asked, the Health and Safety Executive said that it could not see any problems. I have looked at the paperwork and understand that that is correct. I am afraid that it will probably fall to the inquiry to decide who was responsible and when mistakes were made, but on the planning side, I wish to emphasise that Dacorum borough council was exemplary in its role of making sure that no planning went ahead if any risk had been indicated by the HSE.

Some buildings were still being constructed literally days before the explosion took place. Some had been handed over to new owners by the developers the day before the explosion. I am particularly proud recently to have chaired a project called 20/20 Vision for the regeneration of my constituency, particularly the town and shopping centre, and the industrial area. Long before the Buncefield incident, we recognised that there was a major need to regenerate the area because in the 1950s the requirements of an industrial park were completely different from those of the 21st century. That project was well on its way before the Buncefield explosion.

I shall talk about the fire, but the explosion was the devastating thing. Yesterday morning, I had the honour of taking the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government around the Buncefield site. I also had the pleasure of taking the Deputy Prime Minister, in his previous capacity, around the site. Everybody who goes is simply shocked at the sheer devastation created by the explosion and subsequent fire. The Northgate organisation is wonderful—one of the things it does is operate the pay roll for the NHS. The Northgate building was absolutely devastated by the explosion: inside it, an eight-pump fire ensued, which alone would constitute a major incident.

What has to be addressed is what happened in the build-up to the explosion. I am conscious that I and colleagues must be careful in this debate not to jeopardise any possible prosecutions. If I move too far that way, perhaps the Minister would gag me immediately. I have no doubt that his officials will help him.

I desperately want to find out what has happened since the fire was put out by our brilliant fire service. The Deputy Prime Minister made a statement to the House the following day, which I praised. When asked specifically who was in charge of the Buncefield incident, he stated categorically that he was in charge. I discussed with him on several occasions what would happen after the fire was put out and how matters would progress, especially in respect of the environment, planning and the obvious need for an inquiry. As a new MP, I sometimes got a little lost in those negotiations, in which the civil servants told us one thing but probably did another. However, we achieved a broad remit for the inquiry through the negotiations.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I discussed whether we should have an open and public inquiry similar to the Marchioness inquiry. I pushed for that simply for the sake of natural justice, not only for my constituents but for the country as a whole. If we can have an open dialogue about what happened at Buncefield, there will be more confidence throughout the country not only that such an incident will not occur again but that nothing has been brushed under the carpet or in any way left out because it may cause embarrassment. I am not saying that that is the case, but it is a natural assumption about anything that is done behind closed doors.

After a couple of days of negotiations with the Deputy Prime Minister, I was informed that he was not in charge but that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was responsible for the inquiry. I gather that that is why a Minister from that Department is with us this morning.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important in such circumstances to differentiate the immediate crisis response, which may be properly delegated to any senior Minister, from the follow-up action after the immediate crisis is past? Is it not the most important thing that Ministers can do to make it clear and announce publicly when responsibility transfers, if that is necessary, rather than having it wrung out of them in discussions?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I could not agree more. That is exactly why I asked Mr. Speaker for this Adjournment debate. Sadly, seven months after the Deputy Prime Minister's initial statement, many Ministers have come and gone. Many Secretaries of State have come to the constituency to have their photos taken and to say nice things about how well we are doing—I will come to the needs and aspirations of my community in a moment—but no one knew then or knows now who is in charge of the Buncefield incident.

It is clear that the inquiry falls under the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has become the Department for Communities and Local Government. No one has come to the House and said to the country that a certain Minister is in charge, that he has a budget and that he will ensure that, whatever happens, all aspects of the Buncefield disaster will be addressed. That worries me. Further to what my hon. Friend said, I am being bounced from Minister to Minister as I try to find out who is in charge of which bit on which day. There was some surprise that this debate comes within the remit of the DWP. Many people expected a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but because the inquiry is continuing, immediately one talks about Buncefield, the matter comes under the umbrella of the DWP.

I wish to discuss the health and safety inquiry. I have nothing but admiration for the expertise and the hard work of the inquiry board headed by Lord Newton. Its job is difficult and technical. It has been good at providing briefings that are as simple as possible—without too much jargon—so that I can understand what is happening and what the inquiry has covered. It has had real difficulty in getting historical data, but it has done an absolutely wonderful job.

However, I have said since day one—I said this earlier in my comments—that the public sense of natural justice requires that whatever happens in the inquiry must be fair and seen to be fair. There is great concern that it continues behind closed doors. I regularly meet with representatives of my local business community, which has been and continues to be massively affected by the Buncefield incident. Some 4,000 jobs are still at risk. I still have regular meetings with companies in which I say, "Give us time, stay with us while the inquiry is taking place," and their reply is, "What is happening with the inquiry?" My residents still come to me several months on. Only this past weekend, I met with residents of the Leatherstock green area of my constituency who are about to have the roof of their home removed. They had remedial repairs done but have suddenly discovered that there are structural problems and that the whole roof will have to be removed. They thought that they were over all such problems.

I went around my constituency this past weekend to discuss my constituents' concerns with them before this debate so that I could highlight them as accurately as possible. People are still talking about their fears about the future of the depot—sadly, people are still experiencing nightmares and flashbacks—and why the inquiry is being held behind closed doors. I have reiterated from day one that the inquiry should be open and public, along the lines of the Marchioness inquiry, and not long drawn out. My great fear is that the process will take years and years.

What really tips me over the edge is not only that the HSE should not be conducting the inquiry behind closed doors but that it must address the safety failures to which my hon. Friend Bob Spink referred. They were mentioned in the fourth interim report, which was released last Thursday. The report is open in saying that there were catastrophic failures involving safety and back-up mechanisms, but for many years HSE was responsible for inspecting and approving the site and changes to it, and the safety devices. If the HSE inspects something, we expect that it has done so rigorously and that everything is perfectly safe.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

As I said, there is an LNG site in my constituency. I have met with all the emergency services and the HSE to go through all the safety systems and devices on that site to ensure that the testing procedures for them have been checked and double-checked, and that new procedures that more accurately reflect the reality of the situation that occurred at Buncefield are developed in order to test the devices. The public need to know that the safety procedures will work.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend raises exactly the issue that I was coming to. The public must have confidence in the Government agency that is inspecting the depots and saying that they are safe. There are many such depots around the country, some of them much larger than Buncefield. It does not matter whether the inspection and approval of a facility occurred a week, a year or 10 years before, the public will always wonder why the HSE inspects itself. The public will see that a major part of the inquiry's remit is to find out what went wrong, but that the HSE was part and parcel of the organisation that said that the depot was safe. They will ask themselves how the HSE can inspect the site and carry out an inquiry—possibly into its own actions—behind closed doors.

The situation is extraordinary. We were very lucky that no one died, so the police involvement has essentially been zero, and the HSE has gone ahead with the inquiry. That will take a considerable time, and we are lucky to have an independent chairman, Lord Newton, who has been absolutely brilliant at informing me about what is going on. None the less, like every other member of the public, I have no idea what evidence has been submitted to the inquiry or what is going on. If there were to be a criminal prosecution, however, the organisation that was responsible for the safety of the depot and its workers, as well as that of the residents around it, surely could not be judge, jury and defendant.

That is the most difficult thing to grasp, and I do not understand how we can have a situation in the 21st century in which the HSE—a Government agency—investigates the explosion and the subsequent fire when it was so integral to the depot's safety before the fire. I shall continue to call for a full public inquiry by an independent board to be started as soon as possible. I am not saying that the HSE should not make its expertise available to the board, and perhaps even be part of it, but it is imperative that justice is seen to be done when so many of my constituents and others around the country are so worried about the effects of the fire.

Let us dwell for a second on how lucky we were. The vapour initially exploded in the car park. A breeze—it was a real act of God—had moved the vapour from beside the tanks, which were in the depot, into the car park, which was just outside it. If the explosion had taken place in the depot, no one there would have survived, and the fire and the explosions that subsequently affected the area would have been even more severe. I think that the inquiry would probably agree with that view; I know that the chief fire officer does

Some 31,000 people worked in the industrial area, and the explosion damaged their buildings. Some 2,500 people were evacuated from homes that had been damaged or were in what the fire brigade decided should be an exclusion zone, because there was a risk of further explosions. Just to show how fantastic my community is, I should say that of the 2,500 people who were taken out of their homes, just over 200 were put up by the local authority; the rest were looked after by loved ones and friends in the community of Hemel Hempstead. That clearly shows how well members of the community pulled together.

The council did a fantastic job. Many of its staff were way out of their remit and had little experience of such incidents. Let me publicly express my admiration for all the council's workers, and particularly its senior management, who were absolutely brilliant and whose control room was up and operating very quickly. Organisations such as the women's institute and the Red Cross were simply fantastic—we could probably have put the fire out with the amount of tea that they supplied. Typically, when this country comes under attack, we pull together, and this was an attack on our community.

I want to give colleagues time to speak, so I come now to my last point, which relates to my great concern about the environment in and around my constituency. I am concerned not only about the Buncefield explosion, but about the chemicals that have been found in the environment, which the report clearly indicates have nothing to do with Buncefield. I refer, in particular, to perfluorooctane sulphonate. PFOS is a particularly nasty carcinogen used in firefighting foams whose dangers have been known for many years. Before Buncefield, the Government were in what I might best describe as deep negotiations with the European Union about banning PFOS. They had drafted a statutory instrument to do so, which provided for a two-year sentence for those who brought PFOS into the country.

Two sorts of foams were used at Buncefield: synthetic foams and protein foams. I shall talk only briefly about synthetic PFOS foams, because my colleagues want to talk about them. However, I continually go on about protein foams, although nobody seems to be listening. Protein foams are often blood based and they have been used for many years. Indeed, I trained with them extensively when I was in the fire service. Protein foam is smelly, horrible stuff because it is based on blood. Blood tends to bubble up rather well, so people who are trying to smother a fire use blood. That might sound silly, but it was the traditional way of doing things. Protein foams were developed extensively during the war because petrochemical ingredients were in short supply.

I have deep concerns about protein foams. I know that they were used at the incident, because I saw them there in bulk supply, but it looked as if they had been in storage for a considerable time. As I have said before, I am concerned that some of that foam, which firefighters would never dream of using on anything else and which might have come out of storage, was disposed of at the incident. I have therefore asked the Minister to address a particular issue, although I fully appreciate that the environment is not in his brief and that he might have to write to me. I have asked for undertakings that none of the protein foams that were used were based on full-blood products and that where blood products have leaked into the environment—we already knew of the dangers of blood products in the 20th century—none of the firemen, or anybody else locally, had their life endangered.

I turn now to the issue of synthetic foams, of which PFOS is a major ingredient. Before the Buncefield incident, the Government were trying to ban PFOS, and no level was acceptable in drinking water. Recently, however, the drinking water inspectorate has said that it would be happy to have three parts per million in drinking water. Will the Minister explain the logic of saying that we should have no PFOS one minute, but then suddenly saying that we should have three parts per million? I emphasise that there is no PFOS in the drinking water in Hertfordshire, that the bore holes close to the incident have been closed and that extensive monitoring has taken place.

However, that monitoring has shown up another anomaly, which my hon. Friend Mr. Gauke will describe. The water table in areas with no link at all to the Buncefield incident has been showing extensive signs of PFOS. Where does the Minister think that those contaminants have come from? Will he make sure that testing takes place well away from areas where there is a natural assumption that any contaminants will have come only from firefighting foam? PFOS has been used in pesticides and insecticides in the past, and it might still be used in them. That is a major issue in the rural community outside my new town.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Does my hon. Friend agree that Hertfordshire has a very delicate environment because our water comes from chalk aquifers? When a motorway service station or something like that is built, a lot of work goes into ensuring that the run-off is secured. Does he feel that a Minister who deals with environmental matters should make a clear statement about safety, pollutants and so on in the light of the Buncefield incident? That would allow us at least to know what the damage was and what the risks and worries are.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I could not agree more. People are concerned not only about Buncefield and the explosion, but, quite naturally, about the fact that if PFOS and other contaminants—not least the oil-based products—were getting into the aquifers, that needs to be addressed long before Buncefield is given permission to reopen, although I reiterate that I hope it never does. During the incident I was told that the nation could not live without Buncefield, which is a major part of our fuel infrastructure, but I understand now that capacity is up to 95 per cent. without Buncefield. Is that correct? If so, does the Minister agree with my logic, which is that if we reconnect the feeder lines there is no national strategic need for Buncefield and that it should not reopen? That would alleviate the next problem that I want the Minister to deal with, which is about planning.

Naturally, the community wants to get on with its life. The business community wants to get businesses back on to a level playing field. It wants to find out whether properties can be rebuilt or whether they will be too close to a new exclusion zone, if Buncefield is rebuilt; it wants to know whether, if Buncefield is not rebuilt, the contamination of the land will put employees at risk. There are so many questions that I should have hoped that seven months after the incident my constituents and the country would have received the answers.

It is deeply damaging to the Government and to public confidence that the inquiry continues to be operated in secrecy, behind closed doors, and that the evidence to the inquiry is not fully known by the public. I accept that some evidence may need to be held back because of the possibility of prosecutions. However, on behalf of my constituents I cannot understand the Government's reluctance to come clean, open up and let the public see natural justice take place, especially in the light of the obvious involvement—interference, if you want to put it that way—of the HSE in the safety of the depot before the incident, and in the catastrophic failures that occurred. My final plea to the Minister is that he go to his bosses and persuade them to give us the public inquiry that we deserve, so that we can get on with our lives in Hertfordshire.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Order. Several hon. Members have said that they hope to catch my eye. We must conclude the debate within the hour, so I urge them—including Front-Bench Members—to make their contributions as brief as possible.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire 10:02 am, 19th July 2006

On that Sunday morning at 6 o'clock, I, too, was woken in my home a few miles from Buncefield. It is certainly an experience that I shall not forget. Nor will I forget the experience of driving past Buncefield on the A41 and seeing the plumes of smoke, or visiting the site with my hon. Friend Mike Penning. He mentioned the subject on which I should like to focus—perfluorooctane sulphonate, or PFOS, traces of which have been found around Buncefield, raising several concerns.

It may be useful briefly to consider the issue and give the history of PFOS. The chemical was widely used, mainly as a fabric protector—most famously as Scotchgard. However, it had several other uses, such as in pesticides, insecticides and, of course, firefighting foam. In May 2000, 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard, announced that it was phasing out the use of PFOS from 2001. Following that, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced a hazard assessment in which the US and the UK took the lead. Several conclusions about health were reached. One was that PFOS was persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic in mammals. It was detected in blood serum of occupational and general populations. There was a statistically significant association between exposure to PFOS and bladder cancer, and an increased risk of tumours of the male reproductive system, the overall category of cancers and benign growths, and tumours of the gastro-intestinal tract. There is quite extensive evidence suggesting that PFOS is persistent, with a human half-life of four to eight years. As for toxicity, tests on monkeys and rats—but not, you will be pleased to know, Mr. Conway, on cats—show that it can kill at 4.5 micrograms per litre on a repeat dosage over a 90-day period. The OECD hazard assessment further concluded, with respect to the environment, that PFOS is persistent and bioaccumulative, that it is highly toxic in honey bees and that it bioconcentrates in fish. It has been detected in the tissues of wild birds and fish, in surface water and in sediment, in waste water treatment plant effluent, in sewage sludge and in landfill.

After that assessment, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a review of environmental risk. Despite the fact that that use of PFOS has, overall, been substantially reduced since 2001, certain concerns remain. The environmental risk reduction strategy concluded that marketing and use restrictions on PFOS-related substances

"will provide the only effective level of control".

In October 2004 the Government proposed an immediate prohibition on the storage or use of PFOS and PFOS-related substances at or above 0.1 per cent. of mass. It is important to recognise, however, that within the consultation document produced by DEFRA a five-year derogation was proposed for the development of acceptable substitutes and alternate technologies for firefighting foams. However, implementation of the proposals for that quite extensive ban on PFOS usage was prevented. In an answer to my hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Angela E. Smith, said that

"before consultations had been completed, the European Commission suspended our unilateral action and subsequently issued its own draft Directive to restrict the marketing and use of PFOS. In this draft, all current PFOS uses, including firefighting foam, would be allowed to continue. This would not therefore allow the UK to set regulations to ban its use."—[Hansard, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1238W.]

On first reading, that rather rankled with me, given my Eurosceptic instincts. I do not see why that is a matter for the European Commission and why the UK should not be in a position to make a judgment on the dangers of PFOS and to legislate accordingly.

I have several questions for the Minister. To be fair to him, I acknowledge that I did not have an opportunity to tell him my questions in advance, and I am conscious that PFOS is a subject not necessarily closely related either to work or to pensions. Any answers that the Minister can give now would be gratefully received, but perhaps he can write to me later.

I should be grateful to know the Government's attitude and what steps they are taking to lobby the European Commission and the EU. Do they fully accept that the matter is something for EU jurisdiction? Having made that point I want to qualify it in two ways. First, on first reading the parliamentary answer that I quoted, one could get the impression that but for the European Union we would have banned PFOS and it would no longer be relevant. However, the two questions that I referred to related to the fire service, and, to be strictly accurate, even if the UK had proceeded down the route that it wanted, it would still have been possible to use PFOS for firefighting foam, because of the five-year derogation. The derogation does not relate to the EU position, under which use will continue. Secondly, there appears to be no reason why a voluntary plan could not be adopted here; indeed, the answer mentioned that. Given that we are talking about public authorities, I cannot imagine that there is anything within the EU draft directive that would stop the UK Government issuing guidance on that point. Reference is made to a voluntary phasing-out and I should be grateful to know where we are in that respect.

PFOS has been detected in the rivers near Buncefield and ongoing testing shows sporadic detection of PFOS. The levels are higher than 3 micrograms per litre, the advisory level set by the drinking water inspectorate in environmental monitoring samples, although it has not been detected in drinking water, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said. However, the samples show quite high levels: 4.8 and 5.9 micrograms of PFOS per litre have been reported, which is higher than the concentration that killed the monkeys and rats.

The initial report on Buncefield makes the point that there is apparently a widespread occurrence of trace quantities of PFOS in the Hemel Hempstead area, some apparently unconnected with Buncefield, which raises the question why PFOS was not routinely monitored prior to Buncefield. It clearly is a concern, for the reasons I have outlined. The Environment Agency has been taking samples at 150 sites in the area in the period April to July. We have not yet reached the end of July, but the view is that if PFOS is found to be widespread it is intended to expand the sampling. I should be grateful to know if there is any information on whether sampling has found PFOS to be widespread so that we know where we are.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we look not only around Hemel Hempstead and in Hertfordshire, but across the country? Clearly, if the chemical is in the environment in areas that have nothing to do with oil depots and fire stations, we need to know so that we can address the problem immediately.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Rather by accident, we have discovered that PFOS seems to be widespread. The early indications suggest that its presence is not just related to Buncefield; it could be anywhere. I hope that the sampling process will be thorough and widespread and that we do not assume that the presence of PFOS is related only to firefighting. There is a concern about how widespread it may be and I shall be grateful for an update on any progress in that respect.

Anxieties about PFOS have been heightened by the fact that 800,000 litres of stored firewater from Blackbird Lees sewage treatment Plant near Radlett was accidentally released into the water supply. I understand that it was treated and there has been no evidence of PFOS as a consequence, but it is a major concern.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern felt in Radlett, whose residents will wish to hear from the Minister on that point. My hon. Friend may also wish to join me in paying tribute to the work of the Radlett fire crew who attended the Hemel Hempstead fire.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for two reasons: first, for further highlighting the concern about the leakage and, secondly, in paying tribute to Radlett fire station, which I am certainly keen to do. I also pay tribute to the fire station of Bovingdon in my constituency. My hon. Friend and I are both worried about the fact that Bovingdon and Radlett are set to close, or, indeed, have closed, but I will not go into that now.

I am especially concerned about the water sewerage because the fire water is stored in my constituency at Maple Lodge sewage treatment works. I wrote to Thames Water expressing my anxieties about the leakage and received a reply dated 12 July. It is reassuring; it says:

"Following detailed analysis, we are satisfied that the release of the treated water poses no risk to public health, drinking water, or the local environment."

On the Maple Lodge site, it says:

"The water used to extinguish the fire itself continues to be stored safely at Maple Lodge sewage treatment works. The design of the tanks here is such that an incident similar to that at Blackbird Lees sewage treatment works could not occur."

I am reassured by that to some extent, but I am also rather concerned that, seven months on, the water continues to be held within Hertfordshire. It is a responsibility of the oil companies to dispose of it and they have been somewhat tardy in doing so. If the Minister can shed any light on progress and tell me when we can get the contaminated water out of my constituency I shall be very grateful.

In conclusion, there are concerns about PFOS levels, which seem to be widespread and are not narrowly connected with Buncefield. I hope that the Government recognise the seriousness of the matter and will address it as quickly as possible.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans 10:15 am, 19th July 2006

As my hon. Friend Mike Penning remarked, the incident at Buncefield is not only a Hemel Hempstead problem. From St. Albans we watched the pall on the horizon; we were lucky that the wind was favourable and it did not come over to us, but it could so nearly have done. Since then, residents have had major concerns about the environmental impact, because we are downstream from Hemel Hempstead. We have two major rivers, the River Ver and the River Colne, which help to define a beautiful part of my constituency, but which also makes us very vulnerable to pollution incidents.

As late as July 6, my local newspaper was still running stories about confusion about water pollution. I am glad that we are using the term PFOS, because the long name—perfluorooctane sulphonate—does not trip nicely off the tongue. It is a diary of disaster to local residents. I shall not repeat the details of the toxicity concerns about PFOS, except to say that my constituents have little faith in the system that seems to be throwing up such completely differing views on the safety of PFOS in the water supply, how long it will be there, who is responsible for eradicating it and how the effect on the health of the local environment is to be monitored.

On December 11 at 6 am, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, 30 million gallons of fuel went up in flames. On December 20 the Health and Safety Commission and the Environment Agency started an investigation into the events. In January, a large pool of liquid measuring 200 m by 10 m by 20 m was allowed to run off the site; it was standing in Cherry Tree lane for the first week of January.

In January, Lord Newton was appointed as the independent chairman of the investigation. Since then, there have been various progress reports. In April, a progress report was published which mentioned PFOS and zinc for the first time. The chemicals have seeped into the ground and are now detected in the water. On April 18, the Environment Agency revealed that diesel oil had been found in ground water. The water is taken from bore holes which goes into the water-holding layer of chalk, some 40 metres below ground level. Three Valleys Water said that it will continue to monitor the situation and the Environment Agency said that it could take years to assess the full impact.

On May 9, the third progress report was published, stating that PFOS had now been detected in local rivers—the River Ver, the River Colne and the River Red. Fuel and fire water had soaked into the water table and been detected in bore holes. The Environment Agency said that the chemical was at a very low level and generally below what the drinking water inspectorate considers acceptable.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I emphasise, because it is very important, that before Buncefield there was no tolerance for PFOS in drinking water, but suddenly 3 parts per million is acceptable. Our constituents are very concerned about that. Can hon. Friend see any logic or link in that?

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I shall give a little history lesson. We are all old enough to remember the Camelford incident in 1988. That was a different environmental disaster affecting water sources. Acidic aluminium sulphate got into the water sources and caused a level of toxicity that worried local residents. However, according to the newspapers of the day, South West Water Authority blithely assured people that it was safe to drink. It took weeks and 400 people complaining of ill-health effects such as mouth ulcers and so on before the problem started to be taken seriously. The view of the water industry and, to some extent, the medical establishment, remained that aluminium in drinking water was not toxic, and the 1991 Clayton Committee report failed to alter their views, yet, even now, people complain about long-term health problems such as dementia that might have arisen out of that unfortunate incident at Camelford. One can therefore forgive my constituents for not feeling terribly reassured that there is suddenly a new, safe level for PFOS.

I do not think that we will see the effects of the Buncefield incident for a long time. We cannot be sure what levels are acceptable for pregnant women, for example. I have here Dr. Brooke's February 2004 report, which is hundreds of pages long, on the environmental risk evaluation of PFOS in the environment. The report points out some worrying issues. For example, the half-life of PFOS is estimated by some to be four to eight years, but the report estimates it to be 30 years. It says that concentrations in fruit and vegetables are hard to measure, but contribute to the toxicity build-up. PFOS has even been found in cows' milk. We have to measure the levels not only in drinking water, but in all the animals—prey birds, for example—that inhabit our sensitive environment. People in St. Albans and the surrounding areas take their environment extremely carefully. We are blessed with the Ver Valley Watercress Society, which prides itself on having brought back that ecological miracle by really clearing up the environment. It is an indicator, or barometer, of how clean the environment is.

We must be careful about the creeping, accumulative toxicity which may cause dangerous levels further down the line. My constituents have had no reassurances: the drinking water sources might be safe, but all the other environmental sources of PFOS may not be safe and are not really being examined in the depth that they would like. We cannot blithely assume that everybody's water comes from a tap. Mr. Hall of Hanrox Turkeys, whom I went to see the day after the disaster, is particularly concerned because all his water comes from a bore hole. He has been assured that it is all fine, but is it? Is it okay for him to feed the animals on his farm—he has other animals as well as turkeys—from that water source?

The impact on the environment, which will have a huge cost implication, has not been considered. Who is to pick up the bill? My local council seems to think that the problems will have implications for councils for years to come. I would like some answers from the Minister. What support will we receive, transparently, to ensure that the source of the harm is acknowledged and that people are aware of it, and who is responsible for monitoring the damage and clearing it up?

I would also like some assurances from the Minister about how the long-term adverse effects on the aquatic environment are to be cleared up in our sensitive area. We are in a fog of confusion. A report on June 16 said that no traces of PFOS had been found in drinking or ground water, and that consumers can therefore be reassured that

"there is no evidence that their tap water has been contaminated."

But that is only half the story, and I would like the other half to be brought out fully. The Environment Agency says that hundreds of thousands of litres of firewater escaped from where it was stored at Radlett—we have heard about that—into the River Colne. I, too, praise the Radlett firefighters, but add my concerns to those of others that if there is another Buncefield fire disaster, the Radlett fire service might not be there, because it is under threat. I hope that that the service remains.

We have contradictory statements from the drinking water inspectorate and the EA. The EA recently said:

"Notwithstanding the recent press release...we continue to detect...PFOS".

One press release says that nothing is there, and another says that there is PFOS. We do not know where we are. I ask the Minister for clarity and honesty. I do not want another Camelford incident. I do not want somebody to say, 20 years down the line, "This was a problem." I want the problem to be looked at now, and I do not want the bill to be picked up either by Hertfordshire as a whole or my constituents, particularly not the environmental or health bill.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire 10:24 am, 19th July 2006

I shall shorten my speech to allow the Minister the maximum time to respond to the extremely important questions and issues brought up by hon. Members.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Penning on securing this important debate. I visited the Buncefield site with him earlier this year and was shocked by the scale of the incident, the severity of the impact on surrounding properties and buildings, and the sheer size of the footprint of the damage created by the blast. Clearly the explosion at Buncefield, which exceeded any previous worst-case scenarios for emergency planning purposes, has heightened concern among Members such as myself who have major fuel storage and processing facilities in their constituencies.

I echo my hon. Friend's call for an open and independent inquiry into the Buncefield incident. The results of the inquiry cannot be that we should carry on business as usual. It must lead to some real improvements in the way in which risks are assessed and managed at fuel storage sites.

In my constituency, we have the UK's largest fuel storage terminal facility. It is three or four times the size of Buncefield and has capacity for more than 9 million barrels of product. It has more than 80 tanks storing a range of products including gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and crude oil. In close proximity to that storage facility, we have two of the UK's nine major oil refineries, which are also located on the Milford Haven waterway, and two of the world's largest liquefied natural gas import and storage facilities are being built alongside them.

The major concentration of hydrocarbon storage and processing facilities in my constituency is heightening concern in my community about the risks that the local population is living alongside, particularly in the village of Waterston, where the storage facility is located. To say that the facility is close to the village is inaccurate: it is right in the middle of the village. Indeed, many villagers live just a few feet from the main entrance to the SemLogistics site. In the past year or two, they have lived with the disruption caused by the construction activities around the liquefied natural gas plant. They also live with the eyesore of the stacks and buildings from the old oil refinery, but their biggest concern at the moment centres on understanding the risks. They seek reassurance about the risks that they live alongside.

At the start of this year, the fuel storage facility was sold by Petroplus to SemGroup, a US company which trades in the UK under the name SemLogistics. I have been extremely encouraged by the several meetings that I have had with the US and the UK components of the management team, who seem to be taking seriously their responsibilities to ensure that an incident such as that at Buncefield never happens in Pembrokeshire. At our first meeting, we agreed that the site needs more than a lick of paint and a change of badge. Serious investment is needed to upgrade the facility and provide reassurance for the community nearby.

Two weeks ago, I visited the site and saw the new secondary containment features being installed in the tanks, and a new Bentomat geosynthetic clay liner being put in to prevent the leakage of product into the ground water. I looked at some of the high-level safety systems, which actually exceed current UK statutory requirements, that are being installed on the tanks. The company takes its responsibilities seriously.

I was encouraged by the initial findings of the Health and Safety Executive's safety alert review last month, which did not identify the Waterston site as one of the five in which there are problems and issues with bunding, risk assessment or the maintenance of firefighting systems on site.

Those are reasons to be encouraged, but there are other reasons for dismay and huge concerns in my community. Our local fire brigade has a proud history, having tackled some major incidents at the oil refineries in Pembrokeshire in the past 40 years, but we are set to lose our only remaining 24-hour fire station, which will be downgraded to a day crew only. That is causing huge concern in my community. I repeat the calls that I have made many times for the Mid and West Wales fire authority to hold back from implementing that decision, at least until the full findings of the Buncefield inquiry are made public, so that we can better understand risks and how we respond to major incidents. As I said earlier, what has happened at Buncefield has reset the gauge for emergency responses to major incidents.

We need facilities such as the ones in my constituency. I do not know enough about the matter to say whether Buncefield will ever reopen, but we need storage facilities in the UK for strategic reasons. At a time of energy price volatility, it makes good commercial sense for some of the downstream companies to have such storage facilities, but the risks need to be managed properly and understood. I hope that the Buncefield inquiry will result in some clear, concrete recommendations for improving the safety of these facilities and will provide reassurance for the communities that live immediately next to them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:30 am, 19th July 2006

I congratulate Mike Penning on raising this issue. It is clearly of enormous importance to his constituency and has great significance for other parts of the United Kingdom that have similar oil and fuel storage facilities. I hope that we will be able to return to the subject in other debates. I add the congratulations and thanks of my party to those given by his party to the members of the emergency services who dealt with what was clearly a major and serious incident.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond to the debate, so I shall keep my comments as brief as possible. Conservative Members have commented on a number of the environmental concerns that remain in the area around Buncefield. Those points have been made clearly, and therefore I do not need to add to them.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address three particular issues. The first is a point that has, understandably, not been made so far: when the fire and explosion initially occurred, there were fears, given the general background, that the incident might have been caused by a terrorist attack of some kind. As I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead is aware, there is a danger of fighting the previous fire and learning the lessons of an incident that may not be the one that we face in the future. As the investigation proceeds, will the Minister ensure that any lessons arising from Buncefield about the safety of these types of facility will be taken on board in relation to the security aspects of such sites? The sites are key in national security terms, and we want to ensure that their vulnerability is closely examined in respect not only of this type of incident, which fortunately was not a terrorist one, but of any terrorist incidents that might occur.

Secondly, we know that, in this set of circumstances, the key issues were why the fuel was allowed to run into and over the top of the tank, why the safety checks failed and why the safety equipment appeared not to be working. We know that the Health and Safety Executive issued a safety alert in early July to operators of fuel storage facilities. That related specifically to one of the safety devices that are supposed to be attached to all of the tanks to prevent such incidents from occurring. We know, because it is set out in paragraph 23 of the report, that there was further investigation into the design and operation of this particular high-level switch, and the way in which the switches are put back in a position that ensures that they are operating after testing.

Paragraph 23 states:

"While the relevance of this feature to the Buncefield incident has still to be determined, one of the issues that has arisen from these enquiries relates to the reliance on this type of switch".

I would be grateful if the Minister said a little about why the issue has arisen in relation to Buncefield. Is there any evidence that the switches of this type at Buncefield were not operating? Are these particular switches tested regularly by the HSE as part of its regular inspections of these sites? Will that be done in future? It would also be useful if he would say whether the testing of these devices has taken place at other facilities throughout the United Kingdom.

My third and final point is that it is clear from the ministerial statement that was made the other day and from other things that the size of both the fire and the incident was not expected. We still do not know why the explosion was as large as it was. It is also clear from paragraph 83 of the report that the HSE's advice about the type of incident that could occur in a worse-case scenario turned out not to be accurate. It states:

"A vapour cloud explosion was initially considered, but arising from tanker loading operations and not tank storage. A pool fire was assessed as presenting the greater off-site hazard. The Buncefield incident brings into question the assessment policy for many oil/fuel depot sites, and the zone setting method which it informs."

That is clearly an extremely important point for other sites in the country.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Other such incidents have taken place in parts of the world, so it is important to find out why the HSE did not use the experience of the incidents that took place in New Jersey and Florida, where similar, but not identical, situations involving a vapour cloud caused by petroleum occurred. Perhaps that experience could have been used to prevent the Buncefield incident from ever occurring.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very effectively. I do not claim to have expertise in those other incidents, but this is clearly a serious matter. The recommendations in paragraph 71 represent some of the major issues that we will need to examine if we conclude that there are risks of further explosions on this scale. I again congratulate him. The issues are clearly important for his constituency and county, but there are also important issues for all of these facilities in the UK.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 10:36 am, 19th July 2006

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Penning on bringing a unique blend of professional expertise and determination to represent his constituents on this serious matter. I also congratulate all others who have made a contribution and, in hopeful anticipation, I congratulate the Minister on his response.

To this particular situation, I bring an interest that goes all the way back to my school days and my time in the combined cadet force, when I was involved in civil defence matters. Since that time, I have gained a limited amount of experience in fire training and in resilience issues. In conducting my own farm business, I acquired quite a knowledge of pesticides and diffuse pollution. Incidentally, I also held a petroleum storage licence for a number of years. My final point on credentials is that my daughter used to conduct prosecutions on behalf of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

I shall begin with the positive side of this matter so far. I am happy to endorse the praise that has been properly lavished on the emergency services for the tremendous job that they did on the occasion. Secondly, I extend my thanks to Lord Newton, who, as it happens, became my first boss 40 years ago this week.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

On my hon. Friend's first point, the fire services of this country do a fantastic job, but sadly firemen get injured and some die. Two brave firefighters recently died in incidents in Hertfordshire. The fire brigade's benevolent fund raises a lot of money for former colleagues. I hope that you, Mr. Conway, do not mind my highlighting the fact that the booklet, "The Buncefield Explosion", which will raise money for the firefighters' benevolent fund in Hertfordshire, is probably the best visual guide to any incident that this country has ever seen. Will my hon. Friend praise the work of the fire brigade benevolent fund as well?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

I have no hesitation in doing so. We are grateful and lucky in respect of the dedication of our emergency services.

I mentioned Lord Newton and the expert work that his committee has conducted. I should also like to touch on aspects of the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, in particular the Health and Safety Laboratory, which I visited recently. I am happy to say that in terms of the knowledge of its people, even if it is not always translated into the results we would want, it is a world leader in forensic accident investigation.

So much for the positive. It is important that the Minister should respond and that we should put our remarks in a reasonable context. I should like to highlight three points of query or criticism before I sit down. The first is that, on the facts as set out in the interim report, it seems that somehow a long period—nearly 40 years—of the successful operation of this depot and of similar depots, be they in Milford Haven or elsewhere, has lulled local residents and the operators into a false sense of security. The series of explosions and the fire came as a serious shock. I mention that not simply to show the importance of regular and professional inspection by the HSE and so forth, but to allow us to consider the possibility of challenge inspections by outside bodies, which could look into an incident and ask the awkward questions that are occasionally overlooked.

I hope that the Minister will say a little about the Government response, which has already been explored in exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, and about ministerial responsibility. Ministers need to show who is responsible at any one time; I bear in mind that different Departments have interlocking responsibilities, but who is in charge—and at ministerial, not simply agency, level? Ministers owe us the assurance that they are satisfied that action is being taken at all similar oil storage facilities, and at establishments that face similar risks, in the United Kingdom.

I should like to emphasise the issue of progressive development around the site and the planning issues, which have already been touched on. They need looking into, particularly as there is evidence that the HSE entered no objection to the development adjacent to the site. The Minister might usefully say something about the interlocking interests of the HSE and another Government agency, the Environment Agency, which is responsible to another Minister. He might want to say something about monitoring such development and preparing the safety plan, and about that plan as a whole.

Finally, I re-emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made so passionately about the inquiry process. There is an inherent difficulty in government that goes back to the days of the Roman Tacitus—the problem of who will supervise the guardians. Who is to be responsible for ensuring that the professional activities of Government regulators are carried out to the highest possible standards? We should remember that in some cases, including that of Buncefield, the HSE is the competent prosecuting authority. If a criminal prosecution is brought—and I do not wish to prejudice that process—there is a real risk that the HSE will be not merely judge and jury, but prosecutor. That is a difficult moral hazard, and it is not confined to HSE matters; exactly the same could apply to the Food Standards Agency and its subsidiary, the Meat Hygiene Service. The Minister owes us a response on that point, and an explanation of why the process cannot be an entirely independent process.

In dealing with such serious incidents, it is important that the Minister accepts that there must be a readiness to be open, and he must not in any way regard a judicial process or an inquiry as an embarrassment; they are necessary reassurances to constituents and the nation that such incidents will be tackled for the future. We need to know that lessons have been learned, that the Government structure is being adjusted to deal with the situation, and that there will be continuing effective enforcement. The miracle of Buncefield is that no one was killed, so only if lessons have been learned can we feel that there has been benefit from that serious near miss.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 10:43 am, 19th July 2006

This has been a thorough and wide-ranging debate—rightly so, in view of the seriousness of the incident. In the time left to me, I am afraid that it will not be possible to touch on all the points raised, so I offer my apologies in advance for that.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

Well, if I take interventions, I shall have even less time, but I give way.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

As I said to the Minister in a private meeting yesterday, I think that all of us would fully understand if all the points raised could not be dealt with today, but does he undertake—on his own behalf and on behalf of his Department and the other Departments involved—to write to the hon. Members who raised the points as a matter of urgency, so that we can clarify matters with our constituents?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

As is normal procedure when key points have been raised and it has not been possible for me to cover them, I will ensure that hon. Members get responses from the relevant Ministers.

I congratulate Mike Penning on securing this debate on a subject that is important not just to the people of Hemel Hempstead, who are understandably closely concerned in the matter, but to all communities containing fuel storage depots of the kind found at Buncefield; that point has been made by other hon. Members. The explosions and fires that occurred at Buncefield have raised wide concerns about the safety of such sites, and all those concerns must, of course, be addressed.

The debate is timely, as it comes soon after the publication of the initial report of the investigation into the Buncefield incident, and after yesterday's visit to the site by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who met local residents and businesses.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

Yes, and the local Member of Parliament.

First, I should like to say a few words about the incident and its impact. The explosions and fires that burned for more than three days were massive and devastating, and caused major damage to residential and commercial properties near the depot. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or really serious injuries, but that was largely down to a good dose of luck in the timing of the incident, as the hon. Gentleman said. There was also contamination of groundwater and surface water from escaped fuel and firefighting water. That was sufficient for the incident to be reported to the European Commission as a major accident to the environment. I am aware of local concerns that the contamination may have affected drinking water supplies, particularly because of the presence of perfluorooctane sulfonate, which I shall refer to as PFOS, in the firefighting foam. That has been, and will continue to be, closely monitored. Let me reassure Anne Main, who raised the issue, that to date no evidence has been found of contamination of drinking water.

The emergency services' response to the incident—and particularly the response of the fire and police services—was on a massive scale. I pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of all those who responded in such difficult circumstances. The incident was a major test of the new national resilience arrangements introduced under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the test was, I think, passed.

I pay tribute, too, to the resilience of those directly affected by the Buncefield incident. Homes and businesses were damaged, trade was disrupted and jobs were lost. There is continuing uncertainty about the future of the site, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said. It is not surprising that many people, both locally and elsewhere, are keenly awaiting answers about the root causes of the incident and about whether such an event could happen again. The process of finding those answers began the moment that it was safe to begin. Buncefield and other sites that present major accident hazards are regulated by a joint competent authority, formed by the HSE and the Environment Agency in England and Wales, and by the HSE and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Scotland. I shall generally refer to this joint competent authority, except when speaking of one of its parts.

The competent authority assumed formal control of the investigation from the police on 14 December, even before the fires were all finally extinguished. Investigators were able to move on to the site on 16 December. Even so, parts of the site remained so dangerous that they could not be accessed for weeks or even months afterwards. It is a normal statutory function of the competent authority to carry out investigations of major accidents. Those investigations are often highly complex and technical, requiring a wide range of specialist skills and expertise. It was quickly recognised, however, that Buncefield was an exceptional event requiring an exceptional response.

That is why the independent Health and Safety Commission, which advises the Government on health and safety policies, decided to direct a formal investigation on 20 December. The commission made that direction using its legal powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It set out detailed terms of reference, including reports to be made and published, but that did not amount to a public inquiry. The commission could have directed a public inquiry with the Secretary of State's consent, but decided that a formal investigation would better advance the interests of safety. The commission was mindful of the pressing need for answers felt by the local community—a point reiterated by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead—and other communities with fuel storage depots. Public inquiries generally take years to reach any substantial conclusions, and only when their processes have ended can a report be published. That would have seriously delayed sharing the important lessons of Buncefield.

By contrast, the current investigation, which the hon. Gentleman welcomed on 13 January, has already produced four reports in quick succession. They have been well received by local communities and local authorities, and they have led directly to work to improve safety. For example, Dacorum borough council has welcomed the good progress described in the initial report while recognising the need to get the investigation right.

I shall say more about the activities to improve safety in a moment. First, I stress that the investigation is certainly not being conducted in secrecy or behind closed doors. When the commission announced the investigation, it recognised the need for openness as well as speed to ensure public confidence. It adopted a number of unprecedented measures. For the first time, it appointed an independent investigation board, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, to supervise the investigation. The board has scrutinised the progress of the investigation to ensure that it is thorough and that it rigorously pursues all appropriate lines of inquiry.

The board's terms of reference also require it to work closely with all relevant stakeholders and to keep them fully informed. That is why it appointed a community liaison officer to co-ordinate such work. Again, it is the first time that such an appointment has been made in such an investigation. The board has engaged openly and transparently in meetings with local residents and businesses, and it has received representations from interested parties. It is the first time that an investigation board has had such close contact with local interests.

More important, the board has ensured that the investigation's findings have been put into the public domain as soon as they emerge, subject only to the necessary legal considerations. As Mr. Boswell knows, it has published three progress reports as well as last week's initial report. It is always challenging to strike the right balance between being open, thorough and sharing safety lessons without delay, and avoiding prejudice to potential legal proceedings. I am satisfied that the commission's arrangements meet that challenge.

Last week, the investigation board published its initial report. It was announced through a written statement to the House by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire. I shall not repeat everything in that statement, but it noted that the investigation has made good progress in identifying the root causes of the incident in spite of the widespread damage that the fire and the force of the explosion caused to the forensic evidence. I shall add to my earlier tributes to the investigation teams. They have worked hard and professionally in difficult and sometimes hazardous conditions to enable such progress to be made.

The board considers that enough is known to set out with reasonable confidence the sequence of events leading to the incident, although uncertainty remains about why the explosion was so violent. Work continues on that. The initial report does not make detailed recommendations, but it identifies several areas of concern arising from the investigation. They relate to the design and operation of storage sites, the emergency response to incidents and the advice given to planning authorities about risks to proposed developments around major hazard sites. Action is under way on all those matters. If I may tell the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, we expect an interim position on land use planning to be made available before the end of the year. It will then be subject to local consultation.

As early as February, the competent authority issued a safety alert to 108 storage site operators to review the safety of their operations in light of information emerging from the investigation. That was followed up by inspections of all 108 sites, and the preliminary findings were published on 13 June. Overall, they showed no areas of serious concern, but 50 per cent. of sites have been asked to make improvements. The competent authority took some enforcement action, and we expect more details about that to be made available in the autumn.

The Environment Agency initiated a further programme on 11 April to consider the effectiveness of environmental protection at fuel depots. The results of that initiative will be published later this year. In parallel, the industry is working with the competent authority in a task group to improve risk control. The work includes reviewing and revising guidance on handling flammable liquids at storage sites, and an interim report from that task force is expected by the end of September.

A second safety alert was issued on 4 July about the working of certain high-level safety systems. Again, it came as a direct result of new information emerging from the Buncefield investigation. All information on actions under way in response to the Buncefield investigation is publicly available on the websites of the Health and Safety Executive or the Environment Agency, as appropriate.

I have already referred to the massive scale of the emergency response. Inevitably, there are important lessons to be learned from the event, and several reviews of the emergency response to Buncefield are under way. The advice that the Health and Safety Executive provides to planning authorities about developments around fuel storage sites is also under review. Preliminary conclusions are expected later this year, and relevant to that will be the work of the cross-government group, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced in a statement to the House on 15 May.

Other work under way includes the extensive programme of environmental monitoring described in the initial report and carried out by the Environment Agency and other bodies to assess the full impact of the incident on the environment. As part of the investigation's terms of reference, reviews are being carried out of the competent authority's prior involvement in regulating activities at the Buncefield site. To ensure impartiality, the reviews are being carried out by people with no previous involvement in regulating Buncefield, and they will report to the Buncefield board. Finally, the competent authority is pursuing a criminal investigation and it will in due course make a recommendation on legal proceedings.

Let me assure the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead that all Departments are working closely together in their response to Buncefield. The key co-ordination role is carried out by the Government office for the east of England, which covers the Buncefield site.

Finally, there is another initiative by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to learn the lessons of the Buncefield incident and its aftermath. She has asked the Government office for the east of England to convene a task force to investigate options for Government support to businesses and local economies in the period following an exceptional disaster such as the one under discussion. Our paramount concern is that all lessons of Buncefield are learned to prevent such an incident from recurring. However, if an incident occurs, we must ensure that the emergency response arrangements are fully effective. Good progress has been made in a relatively short space of time, but there is still much work to do. That work involves not only the Buncefield investigation board and the competent authority, but a range of agencies throughout central Government. The Government are committed to that effort and to ensuring that the widespread concerns created by the Buncefield incident are fully met.

It is vital to take the time to ensure that the investigation is thorough and gets its work right. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead agrees that it would be wrong to rush to hasty conclusions, as Dacorum borough council has itself recognised. The investigation must ensure that all the right lessons are learned, and it must provide robust evidence in the event of any subsequent criminal proceedings. Meanwhile, the Government are doing everything they can to work with other bodies to help the recovery effort in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Order. The Minister has finished. Sadly, Mr. Penning has no right of reply, so the debate is now concluded. We now move on to the next debate.