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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With permission, I shall put together motions Nos. 3 to 7, relating to international immunities and privileges.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

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International Immunities and Privileges

Question agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together motions Nos. 8 to 13, relating to Northern Ireland.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Sea Fisheries

Question agreed to.

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Cleansing Services Group (Sandhurst)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

10.31 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate, in which I want to call for the closure of a dangerous chemical works in my constituency following an explosion at the site. I want to call also for a public inquiry into the incident at the site, and into the performance of the relevant agencies in monitoring the site's activities.

First, I should like to thank the Minister for the Environment, who has been very helpful and has met me several times to discuss the matter. He cannot be present tonight, unavoidably, but I thank the Under–Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who will respond to the debate and who I know is up to speed with the issue.

Cleansing Services Group is a chemical treatment plant. Incredibly, it was built on a flood-plain in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire, in my constituency. The company has been a very bad neighbour. It has shown a disregard for the environment and local residents, and for the area's amenities. For many years, bad odours have escaped from the site, and heavy lorries have troubled neighbours.

Many complaints have been made to the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the county council about the site's activities over the years. The fact that those complaints have been largely ignored has given rise to this debate. I shall describe the incident that took place, and its seriousness, in a few minutes. If the agencies had listened to the complaints and acted accordingly, it is possible that the incident would not have happened.

I visited the site twice. On the first visit, I was denied a tour, and was shown only certain areas on my second visit. I was not shown the dangerous area, but I came away with stinging eyes and a tight chest. I reported that to the agencies concerned.

An employee at the CSG site, Kevin Harris, was sacked for refusing to carry out certain dangerous duties. He took his case to an industrial tribunal, and won. Again, the relevant agencies were aware of this.

Similar complaints were made over many years. Just over a year ago, on 30 October 2000, a major explosion took place at the site. That surprised no one, but it affected a great many people. Two people had to be detained in hospital and there were many on-going health problems. People in neighbouring villages were affected. Large parts of Sandhurst village were evacuated, and people had to stay in hotels for many days.

If that was not bad enough, the entire site flooded—I noted earlier that it was situated on a flood-plain—and a major clean-up operation ensued. Worryingly, Gloucestershire fire and rescue service said that it would have been unable to tackle the fire if flood and fire had coincided.

Furthermore, the acting chief officer of Gloucestershire's fire and rescue service wrote to the chief executive of the Environment Agency on 9 November 2000. He stated that

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There can be no doubt that the responsibility for the explosion lies with the company. That site is a terrible place to work, or even to visit. The company has shown scant regard for the community, and certain staff at the site have shown great arrogance. One manager told me that he did not even know that the site was on a flood-plain—an incredible statement. The company should be investigated, especially with regard to the operation of that site, and the site should be closed down by the Environment Agency or by the Minister. That is the first point that I want to make in this Adjournment debate.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a CSG site in my constituency, just south of Newbury. Given that he has just said that the company is so irresponsible that its site in his constituency should be closed, does he agree that it would be wrong for the site in my constituency to change from being a comparatively low-level waste site to one that deals with toxic waste, with all the dangers to my constituents that he has unfortunately met in his?

Mr. Robertson: I certainly agree, and if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall make a main point about that in a moment.

The second point that I want to make is that the agencies—the Environment Agency, the HSE and the county council, all of which are paid by the taxpayer to protect us—are supposed to monitor the site, but they have singularly failed to do so, despite having received very many warnings about it.

The main purpose of this Adjournment debate is to call for a public inquiry into the incident and into the performance of the agencies' monitoring of the site beforehand and, indeed, afterwards. I have met the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment a number of times, and I have even raised the issue with the Prime Minister, but, as yet, no decision has been made on a public inquiry, even though a year has passed. I should like to consider the performance of the agencies to explain why such an inquiry is necessary.

The Environment Agency was warned over many years by many people—residents, councillors and myself—that the site was dangerous, but it took inadequate notice and inadequate action, seemingly making excuses for the company. Since the explosion, the Environment Agency seems interested only in avoiding a court case. It did issue a suspension notice, but it has recently replaced it with a more lenient one.

Again, to quote the acting chief officer of the Gloucestershire fire and rescue service, the Environment Agency was "pedestrian";

which tried to control the incident;

Those are quite damning words.

The Environment Agency was warned many times of the dangers of the site, but, amazingly, it now seems to be allowed to investigate itself. It is also being allowed to

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investigate the site. It therefore has a disincentive to discover the full extent of problems, because it was responsible for monitoring the site. That totally disserves the public and taxpayers. The Environment Agency should be subjected to a full, independent public inquiry.

In 1978, the county council granted planning permission for the treatment of waste oils and oily wastes— a change of use, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). The council now admits that

Instead of waste oils and oily wastes, Cleansing Services Group has stored BSE-contaminated material, highly flammable chemicals, corrosive chemicals, irritants, oxidising chemicals, explosive chemicals, toxic chemicals, chemicals that release toxic gases and carcinogenic chemicals. Yet no one noticed, or did anyone?

The county council became aware of the problem in 1998—two years before the explosion took place—yet no action was taken. When did the Environment Agency know? How was it able to continue to issue operating licences when the company was in such serious breach of its planning permission? Did not the Environment Agency and the county council ever talk to each other? I understand that the county council is now to be investigated by the local government ombudsman, but it too should be subject to the rigours of a public inquiry.

The HSE was aware of the incident involving the sacked employee, but it was described by the Gloucestershire fire and rescue service as being "less than helpful" and, amazingly, the service said that

I am afraid that the health authority has also not covered itself in glory in most people's eyes following the incident.

The Environment Agency and the HSE have been commissioned to produce reports, but so what? People will not and cannot be satisfied if agencies are allowed to investigate themselves—it is a joke. A full independent public inquiry is the only way to investigate fully the incident and the performance of the agencies.

It could be that the agencies need more powers or it could be that they did not exercise their powers properly. If there is not a full inquiry the question remains: are these quangos any use at all if they perform like this? Either way, the residents of my constituency have a right to know the truth and have a right to expect the agencies to do the jobs that they are paid to do.

Internal investigations cannot be the sole method of inquiry. Indeed, I understand that the Government are rightly considering how to make the investigations of complaints against the police more independent. I applaud that strategy, but I ask the Minister to apply the same philosophy in this case; otherwise people's faith—or lack of faith—in the democratic process will be further frustrated and their concern about government by quango will be fuelled.

People see nothing as being anyone's fault any more; no one wants to take responsibility for anything. On a wider point, I suggest that that is one of the reasons for voter apathy, which is dangerous.

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I have raised a big issue that affected my area greatly. I presented a petition to Parliament with 2,100 signatures, calling for the site to be closed. The effectiveness of the agencies is a wider matter.

To summarise, the site should be closed and a full independent public inquiry should be announced. At the time of the incident, all six Gloucestershire MPs representing three political parties called for such an inquiry. Two of them are here tonight. [Hon. Members: "Three."] Three of them are here, so all three political parties are presented. I assume that they have not changed their minds about calling for a public inquiry. I ask the Minister to announce that action tonight.

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