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5.27 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Last Wednesday, at about 11.15 am, it was finally recognised that there had been an escape of sulphur trioxide from the sulphuric acid plant at Rhodia Eco Services Ltd, which is known locally as Staveley Chemicals, a previous name of the plant. Staveley Chemicals dominates the Staveley area and used to employ a great number of people. It now employs only 130, but those are important jobs.

The emissions had lasted for half an hour and, in breezy conditions, were spread over the rest of Staveley and into the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). If it had been raining at the time, or there had been a great deal of moisture in the air, that would have turned the sulphur trioxide into acid, creating serious problems. It is not easy to determine whether it was worse for the breeze to disperse the sulphur trioxide, or whether the situation would have been worse if it had remained static, held by rain.

The emergency services moved quickly and, once the situation became clear, the police and fire services were on the spot. Nineteen roads in Staveley were blocked off, and the indications are that the emergency services

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operation worked well, although there is further debriefing to be done and further information to be supplied to Derbyshire county council.

Staveley Chemicals has a siren that sounds when any emergency occurs. It now has an all-clear system, which ensured that another signal was sounded 45 minutes after the emergency signal, when the procedure had been completed. At one stage, it had only the initial emergency sound, so when false alarms occurred, people sometimes remained in their homes for considerable periods with their windows locked. Some of them stayed hidden under tables and so on, and did not know when to come out. I subsequently made representations suggesting the introduction of an all-clear system. There is a difficulty in the area, as Coalite at Bolsover, which is not far away, also has a siren system and it is not always clear which siren is being sounded.

The current investigation into what occurred is being conducted under the COMAH--control of major accident hazards--regulations. The incident in question took place after recent maintenance work. Three policemen and a television camera worker were taken to the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital and released later after treatment. Immediate investigations were set up by the integrated pollution control unit of the Environment Agency, working in association with the Health and Safety Executive. The plant's liaison committee, which is chaired by councillor Vicky Lang, meets today in Staveley to look into what occurred. The Derbyshire county council emergency planning unit is also reviewing operations with regard to the emergencies.

Unfortunately, the incident was not unique in North-East Derbyshire. In May and June 1998, there were two serious escapes of acid gas at the SARP plant in Killamarsh. In one incident, the gas escaped from a tanker. The other escape was emitted from a tank that imploded. In that incident, the tank that the tankers were filling up imploded, with a massive escape of acid gas. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment later visited the SARP plant and the Killamarsh area. The offending processes at Killamarsh have since been moved from the site, which is now owned by Onyx. I am seeking the close attention of my right hon. Friend and of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions with regard to the incident. It is likely that prosecutions will occur following the Environment Agency investigation.

Under the Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has power to introduce regulatory measures. Although that Act derived from the need to codify European Union regulations, it was also influenced by the SARP incidents, which had an important impact on the understanding of these matters that was gained by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. We must find out whether the powers that the 1999 Act provides are adequate for dealing with such circumstances, or whether the legislation should be added to, perhaps with provisions that confer prosecution powers against directors.

I have raised that matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in connection with the ex-Vinatex workers group. The Vinatex firm was situated in the Staveley area, near Staveley Chemicals. It closed shortly

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before I became an MP in 1987. An investigation that was recently conducted by the trade union safety team made various suggestions about the problems that occurred and about the risks faced by workers in the plastics industry in terms of cancers and other serious effects. It also pointed out the lessons that can be learned about more serious action in future. The matter is well understood by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and the incident at Staveley, which covered a vast area, needs to be taken on board in that regard.

Staveley Chemicals is next to Stanton plc, which is owned by Saint-Gobain, a French-based multinational company. Saint-Gobain took over Biwater Industries (Clay Cross) Ltd. in my constituency and immediately announced the plant's closure with the loss of nearly 700 jobs, leaving only a few maintenance workers. Jobs at Stanton plc, next to Staveley Chemicals, seem to be guaranteed for the time being, but given the way in which Saint-Gobain operates and is seeking to transfer a great deal of pipe production overseas, a problem still exists for Stanton plc.

I want to refer to the dismissal of workers at Biwater. Marks and Spencer proposed the closure of 18 stores in France, but after a plea by trade unions, on 29 March a judge in Paris ruled that Marks and Spencer had failed in its responsibility under French and EU law to give due warning to the workers, contrary to works council provisions in particular. Britain has no similar legislation, but had we had it, the 700 jobs at the Biwater plant in Clay Cross might still remain.

These problems, arising in my constituency in the Staveley area and in Clay Cross, provide lessons for the Department of Trade and Industry.

5.37 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My speech today is in two parts. First, I want to lay before the House the situation of my constituent, Mr. Crawley. Mr. Crawley is dying; indeed, he may already be dead as I speak. He has cancer, and neither his family nor I are in any doubt that his condition has been caused by the stress to which he has been subjected by the Ministry of Defence.

I shall not weary the House with all the details of his case; suffice it to say that Mr. Crawley's firm, Chesswood Floors, was a flooring contractor to the Ministry of Defence. His work for it in Kent over several years was of a quality which allowed him to win a contract carpeting MOD houses in Aldershot.

Out of the blue, acting on an allegation of fraud from an undisclosed source, the Ministry of Defence raided his office in May 1992 and took from it not only papers relating to the MOD but all his other business papers, to which it had no legal right whatever.

As a result, Chesswood Floors was forced into liquidation, Mr. Crawley's honesty had been impugned, the Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that it has no charges to bring--yet the Government, despite assurances on several occasions, have failed to disclose the necessary documents to allow Mr. Crawley a chance to rebut the allegations. Whenever he has complained, the MOD has told him that if he does not like it he can always go to court. How crude, how disingenuous and how tyrannical.

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The MOD knows perfectly well that Mr. Crawley cannot afford to go to court. The whole thing smacks of MOD techniques perfected over centuries of dealing with aggrieved citizens--drag it out long enough and they will die off. We have seen it with soldiers entitled to compensation often enough; we are seeing it here now.

This is a clear case of Government bullying which has killed one of my constituents, and we should not adjourn until the Government promise instant action and redress.

Our procedures, based on the mediaeval belief that the best way to arrive at the truth is through adversarial confrontation, make it difficult to concentrate hon. Members' minds on anything but the shortest of short terms. However, unless we make a considered examination of the country's future, we shall betray not only those who sent us here but their children and grandchildren.

By some international measurements, we are one of the half-dozen richest countries in the world. We have houses, footballers and disc jockeys worth several million pounds. We are inventive, energetic and proud of our achievements. Why should not our current prosperity last for ever?

I live on the top floor of a block of flats. The block is well run, and serious defects are quickly spotted and speedily remedied. If I wish to improve my flat, I can do so with confidence. I sometimes believe that the United Kingdom is like a block of flats; let us call it UK court. It is full of people on the upper floors who are busily engaged in improving their property, building penthouses, putting in swimming pools and picture windows. However, unlike my block of flats, the basement of UK court is rotting away. Before too long, the effects of the largely neglected rot will spread to higher floors and destroy the building.

I invite hon. Members to consider elements that should receive much more attention. I begin with demography. By 2016, for the first time in our history, the number of people who are over 65 will be greater than that of those under 16. That will present enormous challenges. In previous centuries, we coped with demographic shifts by improving technology. However, the greatest need of an ageing and increasingly solitary population will be for human help. Its members are likely to be the least well equipped to adapt to new technologies. We shall need people to fill the gap.

The current debate on immigration should therefore be conducted without hysteria. We need more people if our public services are to survive and our older citizens are to be adequately cared for. We can find them either by immorally robbing much poorer countries of the skilled people on whom their future depends, or by adopting a rational immigration policy. Such a policy would either make use of the skills of our current immigrants instead of forcing them to do unskilled, illegal work, or it would establish a quota of foreigners who would be allowed to settle here permanently.

There are two other choices. First, we could stop killing our unborn children. Abortion rates among women aged 16 to 19 and 20 to 24 have been growing fast. In the 16 to 19 age group, abortions have increased from 2.5 per 1,000 in 1968 to 26.5 per 1,000 in 1998. For 20 to 24-year-olds, abortions have increased from 3.4 to 30.4 per 1,000 women. The UK has chosen a path that makes substituting foreigners for UK-born citizens inevitable.

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The second option brings me to the next symptom of rot in UK court. We could make better use of our young people. We could start to love our children instead of disregarding them. We could give them the care and education that they need. We could give those who go off the rails the support that would return them to mainstream society. We currently do precisely the opposite. As a society, we do not love our children. In 1999, the Office for National Statistics found that 10 per cent. of our schoolchildren suffer from mental disorders and 30 per cent. of those are never seen by a consultant or even a general practitioner. Such children are four times more likely to play truant, three times more likely to suffer from specific learning difficulties and 10 times more likely to be in trouble with the police.

This is when we really show how we care for our children: once those children, whose homes are poor and usually fragmented, go off the rails, we clamour for them to be subjected to the full rigour of the law. "Lock them up", we cry, and we do. Although the incidence of youth crime has scarcely altered in the past 10 years, the number of those locked up has "gratifyingly" increased. Between 1991 and 2000, the number of male young offenders under sentence in young offenders institutions rose from 5,683 to 8,224. And what a good place to send them: 77 per cent. reoffended within two years of their discharge. Between a quarter and a third of the residents of young offenders institutions are not even convicted but are on remand. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

We should be even more ashamed of the next thing that I am about to mention. I wonder whether the House realises that, once in a young offenders institution or any other penal institution, a child is deprived of the protection of the Children Act 1989. If a 15 or 16-year-old on remand is raped, the social services cannot even carry out an investigation under the Act. What do we think we are doing?

Let us leave on one side our children who take to crime--after all, everyone else does. Let us look at our schools. We travel the world teaching other countries how to run an education system, so we surely must be good at it. Each year, 200,000 children fail to obtain at least one GCSE of grade C or above, and 30,000 leave with no graded GCSEs at all. That is hardly a stunning return on 42,000 hours of compulsory school attendance. No wonder truancy is on the increase.

GCSEs apart, what about skills? In some parts of England, almost four out of 10 adults cannot read or write properly or do simple sums. About 24 per cent. of adults in the United Kingdom can be described as functionally illiterate. As the international adult literacy survey found, 8 million people in the United Kingdom are so poor at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life.

This rich, proud country is turning out of its schools more functionally illiterate people than any country in the European Union except Italy. Not only is it a disgrace--indeed, a form of child abuse--but it spells huge dangers for the rest of us. People who cannot find work or earn a decent wage turn disproportionately to antisocial behaviour and disrupt the lives of the rest of us. If compassion does not move us, let us try self-interest. Self-interest persuaded the Victorians to build public drains. Would it persuade us to improve our schools?

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It had better, because even if we set aside the need for dignity and self-regard as unimportant, we need these men and women for the future.

I could go on and on. I could point to the alarming rise in sexually transmitted infections and the frequent comments from our young that they do not know enough about HIV-AIDS. I could ask whether we are on the verge of a sharp increase in HIV. I could point out that our young people drink more alcohol and drink to excess more often than any other young people in Europe. We should listen to the voices of young people. The creation of the UK Youth Parliament has been of some benefit so far. Let us listen to the young people who have positive ideas for the future and try to make sense of our lives.

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