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10.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on obtaining the debate and on the way in which he has made the case on behalf of his constituents. I know that there is considerable concern about the company. As he rightly said, we are joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made pertinent points about the activities of the company in his area, and I shall come to them shortly. We are also joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), whose constituency contains Flixborough, where a major chemical works was involved in a serious fire and disaster some years ago. He will be aware of the problems involved in this case.

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I confess that I was surprised to learn that the company did not show him around the facility. That was not an unreasonable request for the local Member of Parliament to make, and I would have thought that it would have been met.

The fire was serious, but its exact cause is not known. It is likely to have been caused by a chemical reaction or, possibly, even by arson. I am well aware of the floods that took place in the area, and I visited it. At that time, the issue of the floods and the factory was raised with me, and this case is an example of the need for the careful consideration of developments on flood-plains. Even though permission was granted for this development, I hope that the lessons will not be forgotten when other developments are considered.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the company is under investigation by the Environment Agency and the HSE. Its operating licence has been suspended and the Environment Agency intends to modify CSG's operating licence. I accept what the hon. Member for Newbury said about how some of the issues raised relate to his area, and local planning authorities, the Environment Agency and the HSE need to examine them carefully before the company's activities are extended. I am sure that that will happen.

Mr. Rendel: The Minister may not know that, sadly, planning permission for the site in my constituency was granted just two days before the explosion in Sandhurst. It is now a matter for the Environment Agency.

Mr. Morley: I understand that planning permission was granted on appeal in 1996. Nevertheless, the issues

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are important and I am sure that the Environment Agency will take them into account because it is responsible for the operating licence.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who commissioned three reports that have been published. The first was an interim report on a joint investigation by the agency and the HSE under COMAH—the control of major accident hazards regulations. The final version of the report, with a report on prosecution, is expected shortly. He will appreciate that the investigation is complex. I am glad that it has received the support and co-operation of local residents who are worried about the problem. My hon. Friends are also concerned, and it is right that those are taken into account.

The second report was the final report of a quality assurance review of the agency's regulatory actions in relation to the site. The agency has advised that it is on schedule to implement the actions arising from that report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that. The third commissioned report to be put in place is the final report of a review that was carried out by the HSE as part of its major incident handling procedures. My right hon. Friend has taken those significant actions in response to the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

I fully understand the deep concerns of local residents about the incidents at the site and their desire for a public inquiry. The Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are considering that in the light of the latest progress report into the joint investigation of the incidents by the Environment Agency and the HSE, and an announcement will be made as soon as possible.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: Does the Minister accept that the Environment Agency has a great disincentive to discover too much about the site because it was responsible for monitoring it? He should not base a decision on what the agency discovers. The analogy that I gave of his Government's concern about the police investigating themselves is perhaps a better guide.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about self-regulating organisations. However, in the Environment Agency's defence, I was greatly involved in the problem of flooding. Although its regulation is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, I am aware that it identified the drums of BSE-contaminated waste. It made that fact public, took immediate action to make them safe and suspended the licence. Although he is entitled to raise those concerns,

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the agency's response was rapid and efficient. We should acknowledge what it did to secure the site and ensure that his constituents' interests were safeguarded from a potential threat.

I accept that there are issues that need to be examined carefully. I know that the Environment Agency intends to modify CSG's licence so that there will be no use of the transfer station, which is where the fire occurred, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The company will not be allowed to use the large and small treatment wells until it has met new licence conditions. Those activities will not be allowed to commence unless the company can show that it can do so without giving rise to pollution of the environment, harm to human health or serious detriment to the amenity of the locality, with particular emphasis on fire and flooding. The hon. Gentleman will know that full recommencement of activities has not been approved by the Environment Agency.

In reply to the intervention by the hon. Member for Newbury, I can say that the points that he made are exactly those that I would expect the agency to consider in relation to any operating licence.

We have been assured that the Environment Agency understands the concern felt by the local community about the resumption of any activity on the site. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole and for Forest of Dean have made clear people's concern about earlier activities. The agency also understands residents' lack of confidence about what has happened to date. It is consulting widely on its proposals to ensure that the views and concerns of local residents are taken into account.

We understand that there are legitimate concerns about what happened on the CSG site. That is under detailed investigation by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. Powers to revoke site licences are limited, and a licence can be revoked only if the holder is convicted of an environmental offence, if the agency no longer considers the person to be fit and proper to run the site or if pollution or harm to human health cannot be avoided by modifying the licence conditions.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury has, rightly, asked pertinent questions about whether those conditions can be met. The agency needs to take those issues seriously. I am sure that his concerns will be reflected in the investigation, and taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in deciding whether a public inquiry should take place.

Question put and agreed to.

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