THE FLIXBOROUGH EXPLOSION (Hansard, 3 June 1974) (2023)

HL Deb 03 June 1974 vol 352 cc1-8 1

§ LORD WYNNE-JONES

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Private Notice, namely:

§ "To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the explosion which occurred at Flixborough near Scunthorpe on Saturday, June 1, and whether they will order a public inquiry to be held."

§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (LORD SHEPHERD)

My Lords, may I reply to that Private Notice Question by repeating a Statement that is now being made in another place by my right honourable 2 friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"At about 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, the factory of Nypro U.K. Limited situated in the village of Flixborough in North Lincolnshire was shattered by a violent explosion, followed by a fire which raged all the following day and may not yet have been extinguished.

"Twenty-nine people are either dead or are missing and must be presumed dead. There is severe damage to property near the scene, less serious damage over a wide area and minor damage has even been reported from many miles away.

"All Members of the House will join me, I know, in sending a message of deep sympathy to the relatives of the dead and missing. I would also like to add my sympathy to the injured and to those who have been rendered homeless. A tribute must also be paid to the emergency services in the area whose efforts to cope with the fire and destruction and to help the injured and homeless is deserving of the highest praise.

"The plant is owned jointly by the National Coal Board and the Dutch State Mining Company. It uses a number of highly flammable raw materials of which a major one is Cyclo Hexane in the manufacture of Caprolactam. This is a raw material used in the manufacture of Nylon 6. This is one of a small number of plants throughout the world and the 3 only one in this country. As there is already a shortage of this material there will be economic problems to be added to the death and destruction which has resulted from this explosion.

"Within two hours of the incident, locally based members of my Factory Inspectorate were on site and they were joined late on Saturday evening by a Deputy Chief Inspector from London. On Sunday the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and the Chief Inspector visited the site. They were later joined by three experts from our London Headquarters and an electrical inspector. The Chief Inspector has now formed an investigation team to gather the facts as soon as possible while memories are fresh. The team will be under the control of the Superintending Inspector for the area and he will be able to call on any help that he may need. By courtesy of the Police, with whom they are closely co-operating, they have formed a temporary Headquarters in the Police building in Scunthorpe. For the moment access to the plant is still limited by the fire but witnesses are already being interviewed.

"This investigation is proceeding with all speed but I must decide in what framework it should now be set. Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate have been worried for some time about the escalation of risk associated with certain new technologies. It is no secret that the Chief Inspector is on record in his annual reports of expressing his own concern. I believe that his concern is now widely shared.

"The Health and Safety Bill which is now going through the House will very materially assist in relation to this kind of development since it will provide for the licensing of some of these plants. Arrangements for close co-operation between planning authorities and the new licensing controls will be within the scope of the Health and Safety Commission when it is set up. To that extent I believe that the new legislation will be a major contribution to control in the future, but I would not like the House to think that all efforts to deal with this problem have been allowed to wait upon legislation.

4 "In 1969 the Factory Inspectorate and the Department of the Environment set up a joint working group, the object of which was to look at the implications for planning authorities of the siting of factories which may involve a major hazard. As a result of this an inter-Departmental procedure has been set up which enables planning authorities to call upon the advice of Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate when considering applications for new developments. This procedure is, I believe, developing smoothly and may well be a pattern for the future.

"Members of the House will appreciate that the problems which are raised by this explosion are not solely confined to matters for which I hold responsibility. I am sure the whole House will agree that it is necessary to hold a full public Inquiry into these events. I will be urgently consulting with my colleagues to decide the form the Inquiry should take and the terms of reference it should be given."

§ LORD WYNNE-JONES

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for his very important Statement. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House will wish to associate themselves with the remarks made about the feeling for the relatives of those who have lost their lives, and indeed for a whole community which has been so sadly devastated by this explosion.

I should like to ask my noble friend whether Her Majesty's Government are paying attention not only to those aspects of health and safety which are mentioned in the Bill which is now passing through another place, but also to the great problems of large-scale aggregation. There is little doubt that where one has an aggregation of this type, where a dangerous chemical—not dangerous in the ordinary sense, but dangerous when fire takes place—is present, one may have these devastating explosions. I should like to ask my noble friend whether he can assure us that Her Majesty's Government will pay very careful attention in the future to all types of aggregations of petro-chemicals.

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, my noble friend refers to the Bill which the previous Administration introduced in another place, and which is to be dealt 5 with in this Session. No doubt he will feel that the arrangements set out there constitute a very considerable advance in this connection, particularly in those factories which one can say are concerned with matters bordering on scientific knowledge, It may be, as a consequence of the public hearing into this terrible disaster, that we may have something further to learn. I will certainly give my noble friend the assurance for which he has asked.

§ 2.45 p.m.

THE EARL OF GOWRIE

My Lords, in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy of this kind, one's thoughts must be with the families and friends of those who have lost their lives, with the injured and those whose lives and property have been disrupted or damaged. On behalf of the Opposition in your Lordships' House, I want to echo the sentiments of the noble Lord the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, and extend our sympathy to the bereaved and our good wishes to the afflicted. A tragedy such as occurred here must not happen again. As the noble Lord said, we shall soon have the opportunity to debate the issues of safety and health at work, and to consider in Committee any implications for legislation on this score which the tragedy may have occasioned. In the meantime, as one who has had the privilege of watching at work Mr. Brian Harvey, the Chief Inspector of Factories, may I urge upon the noble Lord the Leader of the House that his percipient anxieties about the likelihood of huge and hideous disasters of this kind be attended to right away, of course in the form of the Inquiry that the noble Lord mentioned, but also in terms of monitoring any potential danger at other comparable plants.

May I also urge on the noble Lord that there be the quickest and widest possible international consultation about the dangers of the Nylon-6 process, valuable though it has proved to be, so that we and others may swiftly learn our lessons and at least see to it that those who died may not have died in vain. May I, in conclusion, ask the noble Lord whether he will consult with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Industry as to what steps his Department may be taking to help the artificial 6 fibre industry to recover from this deathly blow, coming, as I am afraid it does, at a bad time for the economy in general?

§ LORD BYERS

My Lords, from these Benches we do not wish to press any questions on the Government at this time, but wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy which has been made to those who have suffered in this ghastly tragedy, and to join the tributes that have been paid to those who took part in the rescue operations. I would only add to what the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, said that I think everybody will have full confidence in the percipience of Mr. Brian Harvey, who is an excellent factory inspector.

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for what they have said. We are in a realm of industrial development and research on which much of our future will depend. Although this has been a terrible disaster, there can be no possible reason to believe that this was not a plant that had been designed and built with the greatest possible care. International consultation clearly will be necessary since other plants of this design are to be found elsewhere. In regard to the supply of Nylon-6—an important factor in the nylon industry—I understand that the Secretary of State has himself seen to-day the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, to see what steps could be taken to alleviate the difficulties of the nylon industry.

§ 2.49 p.m.

§ LORD HAILSHAM OF SAINT MARYLEBONE

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord two short questions? I read somewhere that a relief fund is being set up. Can the noble Lord the Leader of the House give us any news about that fund, to whom subscriptions should be sent? I heard the chairman of the company involved, which is largely publicly owned, say that compensation would be paid and that the company would meet its obligations. Would the noble Lord be good enough to make sure that the arrangements for the speedy settlement of claims are adequate? One does not want this situation, involving multiple claimants, to drag on like the thalidomide case.

7

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Lord is right about insurance arrangements. I will see that what he has said is drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend. In regard to the relief fund, I understand that a fund has been opened by the Chairman of the Humberside District Authority. If I can find the address, I will find some way by which a noble Lord might ask me a Question for Written Answer so that it appears in Hansard.

§ LORD TAYLOR OF MANSFIELD

My Lords, while joining in the expressions of sympathy, may I ask the noble Lord two questions. First, what is the total number of factory inspectors throughout the country? Secondly, is that number up to the strength required?

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, I saw the figure some time ago but I am afraid that I would not wish to give it to the noble Lord "off the cuff". I do not believe that the Inspectorate is in any significant way under strength, but I will write to the noble Lord about the figures for which he has asked.

§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL

My Lords, in view of the fact that widespread publicity has been given to the statement of the Chief Inspector of Factories that there have been a number of complaints about this factory in the last three years, can my noble friend tell the House, in order to reassure the relatives of the deceased, that these complaints were sympathetically regarded and that action was taken?

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, the reference that I made in my Statement to the concern of Her Majesty's Inspectorate was related not to this particular factory but to the whole development in the petro-chemical industry. My understanding is that last November a senior chemical inspector visited this plant and found everything satisfactory.

§ BARONESS GAITSKELL

My Lords, in view of what my noble friend the Leader of the House said, may I ask him whether he is aware that there were in the Press a number of statements saying that several small fires had started in this particular organisation?

§ LORD SHEPHERD

My Lords, I saw the statements, but in industry one has difficulties from time to time. I can 8 assure my noble friend that I specifically asked about this matter before coming to your Lordships' House. I was told that the place had been inspected last November by a chemical inspector—also of course there are the regular inspections by the local authorities who have responsibility—and nothing untoward was to be found in the site.

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