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Gas Explosion (Holborn)

Volume 25: debated on Friday 18 June 1982

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

12.51 pm

For reasons that will become obvious, I regret having to make this speech. In September and early October last year the contractors James Martin Construction Ltd., working on behalf of North Thames Gas, were renewing gas mains in Boswell Street, London WC1 and the gas mains that connected a block of flats called Richbell to the main in the street.

On 6 October an explosion occurred in No. 26 Richbell, a flat occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Cordingley. Mrs. Cordingley was in the flat at the time and the explosion was so fierce that it blew her out of the kitchen. She was seriously injured and her life was probably saved by the brave and efficient action of a local policeman who rescued her from the flat and carried her from the top storey to an ambulance which he had summoned. She was taken to University College hospital and spent some time in the intensive care unit. There was great concern about whether she would live.

As a result of the skill of the people at UCH, Mrs. Cordingly survived, though she spent 10 weeks in hospital before returning to her new home. The explosion had destroyed the inside of the Richbell flat and a number of items from the flat cascaded down into Boswell Street after the explosion.

Mrs. Cordingley still needs considerable physiotherapy treatment every week and, despite the efforts of surgeons and physiotherapists, her hands have never recovered from the effects of the explosion. They are in such a state that she cannot do housework or any of the normal tasks that the rest of us can do. Further surgery may be necessary if use is to be restored to her hands.

Mr. Cordingley retired early from his job with British Telecom to look after his wife. As a result of his early retirement, the couple have had to accept a substantial reduction in their standard of living.

Mr. Cordingley was rehoused immediately by Camden council, which is frequently subjected to considerable criticism, including criticism by me. On this occasion it reacted promptly in finding Mr. Cordingley alternative accommodation, and he and his wife now live in a fiat in Great Ormond Street.

I regret bitterly having to say that, despite all that I have just explained, the Cordingleys have not received one penny in compensation from North Thames Gas or from the contractors. They have had not a penny to help them move. They have had not a penny to assuage all the pain and suffering to which Mrs. Cordingley was exposed. They have had not a penny to compensate for all the furniture, internal fittings and all the knick-knacks which are acquired over a lifetime, virtually all of which were destroyed by the explosion. They have not even received an acknowledgment of liability from the contractors or from North Thames Gas. Nor have they received an explanation of what happened and what led to the explosion, why it happened and who was responsible.

The tenants association has tried to represent the Cordingleys, and with the association I have been pursuing the matter with the gas industry since October of last year. I have met the chairman of North Thames Gas and several of his officials. I have spoken to officials on the telephone. They have met representatives of the tenants. I think that they have met Mr. Cordingley, though I am not certain about that.

I have put down parliamentary questions, and I have spoken to Ministers because I want to know what happened and why it happened. Mrs. Cordingley wants to know what happened and why it happened. Her former neighbours want to know what happened and why it happened because they are still scared and they do not want it to happen to them. The council which owns the block wants to know what happened and why it happened because it would rather it did not happen again in any of its premises. I have been trying to act on their behalf.

I put down a parliamentary question which was answered at the end of April and which revealed that North Thames Gas had produced a report for the Gas Standards Branch of the Department of Energy. It produced the report and sent it to the Department on 23 October. Since then the Department does not seem to have bent itself very vigorously to dealing with the report and to deciding what to do with it now that it has it.

The Department claimed by way of an answer to a parliamentary question that it was waiting for the outcome of a police investigation into the explosion and for the police to decide whether to prosecute. The police acknowledge that they mounted an investigation at the time of the original explosion because there was a distinct possibility that Mrs. Cordingley would die. Had she died they would have been expected by the coroner to have all the facts at their disposal. That was why the police carried out their initial investigation. They went no further than that because they were pleased, like everyone else, that Mrs. Cordingley did not die and that their investigation was not necessary.

The gas standards branch of the Department of Energy checked with the police whether they had finished their investigation only after I tabled a parliamentary question. This is made obvious by my question, answered on 6 May, in which I asked the Secretary of State
"when his Department was informed by the police of their decision whether or not to prosecute in the case of the Richbell gas explosion".
The Minister who is to reply to this debate stated:
"My Department has no record of having been informed by the police of their decision whether or not to prosecute in this case until 27 April"—
that is, two days before my original question was answered—
"when my officials made inquiries."—[Official Report, 6 May 1982; Vol. 23, c. 109.]

To come back to the original question of 29 April, I asked the Secretary of State
"when his Department received from North Thames Gas its report into the gas explosion … whether it will publish the report; whether it intends to prosecute for negligence; and if so when."
The reply said:
"My Department received on 23 October 1981 a copy of the North Thames Gas report into this incident. The question whether to institute a prosecution under the gas safety regulations is under consideration. Publication of the North Thames Gas report is a matter for the British Gas Corporation. I shall ask the chairman to write to the hon. Member."—[Official Report, 29 April 1982; Vol. 3, c. 312.]
I should point out that I received that reply on 29 April.

The chairman of the Gas Corporation did not get round to writing to me until 4 June. He explained that he had no intention of publishing the report, because it might prejudice litigation. I am not quite sure what litigation it might prejudice. I cannot believe that it might prejudice any litigation between North Thames Gas and Mrs. Cordingley. Perhaps North Thames Gas is even considering prosecuting her for causing an explosion to its gas main. That is the only sort of litigation that publication of the report would prejudice, but I cannot believe that that is the corporation's intention.

As a courtesy, and rather more promptly than he replied to me, I wrote back to the chairman of the British Gas Corporation, telling him of my intention to seek a debate and saying that I should be criticising him and North Thames Gas if I did not receive a reasonable reply. The deputy chairman of the British Gas Corporation replied:
"In my view North Thames Gas have been diligent in responding to the concern expressed by tenants following the explosion".
All that I can say to Mr. J. H. Smith, CBE, deputy chairman of British Gas, is that he must have a different dictionary from the one that I, Mrs. Cordingley and the other tenants have if he thinks that the actions of British Gas and North Thames Gas have displayed diligence on this occasion. That is not how we see it.

The deputy chairman also said in his letter:
"In treating internal reports as confidential the Corporation is not setting out to be secretive or difficult. It is normal commercial practice to treat correspondence within a business and, in our case, between the Corporation and the Department of Energy, as private".
However, Ministers at the Department of Energy have said that they do not mind whether the report is published and that the decision lies with British Gas.

Finally, apart from informing me that he was sending a copy of the letter to the Minister, the deputy chairman said:
"I understand that in the months since the explosion North Thames Gas have on more than one occasion explained the reasons for the incident to you, to the Local Authority and to representatives of the tenants".
I have checked with council officials, both in the immediate locality, who dealt with the matter, and in the headquarters of the council's housing department. They assure me that they have never received an explanation of the incident. I have checked with tenants, who say that they never received an explanation. I have checked with Mr. and Mrs. Cordingley, who assure me that they never received a proper explanation.

All that has ever been explained to me is that the Gas Corporation thinks that there was something wrong with what the contractors did, and that there was a possibility that they would be prosecuted, and please would I not disclose that information to anyone else. So if the deputy chairman of the British Gas Corporation thinks that any of the people that he mentioned in his letter have been informed, he has been misinformed within his organisation.

It is not only North Thames Gas which is at fault. There are contractors and contractors' insurers involved. I understand that Mrs. Cordingley is pursuing the matter through solicitors against the contractors' insurers. I hope that as a result of the Adjournment debate a little more effort will be put in by the contractors, their insurers, North Thames Gas, old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all to make sure that there is a swift response to the claim for compensation.

The Department of Energy has not covered itself in glory either, because it knew on 23 October all the reasons why the incident occurred. That was the date that it was sent the full-scale technical report from British Gas. Now, nearly eight months later, it has still not decided whether to prosecute the people responsible for the explosion. We must ask why it has not so decided. I do not accept its reasoning that it is simply because it was not told by the police that there would not be a police prosecution. I have discovered by way of parliamentary questions that the longest time since 1978 that the gas standards branch has taken to make up its mind has been six months. Eight months have passed in this case and we must look for other reasons.

By way of another parliamentary question I have discovered that the staff of the gas standards branch, which in 1978 stood at 134, has been reduced to 94, a reduction of 40 staff in this important branch. Although the Government must take responsibility for the staffing cuts, that does not provide a legitimate explanation for the delay, particularly as there has been an increase in the number of reportable gas explosions over that period.

All the agencies involved are at fault. They have failed the basic test which should be applied in such circumstances. The question which North Thames Gas, the Minister, the gas standards branch, the contractors and the insurers should all ask themselves is, how would I like it if this had happened to me or to my wife? We all know what answer every one of them would have given. They would have found totally unacceptable the response of all the authorities concerned.

We are left with some questions which I hope the Minister will be able to answer. What happened and why did it happen? Will the full report ever be published; if not, why not? When will Mr. and Mrs. Cordingley get the full compensation they deserve for the ruin of their lives as a result of the explosion? When, if ever, will the Department decide whether to prosecute those responsible for the incident? It is necessary to get the answers to these questions, though not necessarily today, from the Minister for several reasons. We must try to make sure that no such incident occurs again.

There can be only two possible explanations for the explosion. Either there was a human error by someone working on the system, or there was something technically wrong with the system or the procedures followed. If there was a human error, steps should be taken to ensure that the person is no longer employed in important and possibly dangerous work like this. If there were faults in the procedure or in the equipment being used, North Thames Gas and the rest of the gas industry must consider procedures and examine the equipment so that this will not be repeated elsewhere. So we need a full inquiry into the matter.

We must ensure that the delays and incompetence displayed by practically everyone concerned since the explosion do not occur in other circumstances. This is a role for the Department of Energy. It must ensure that in future heads are knocked together a great deal quicker than they have been in this instance so that even if there is an explosion we will not have these preposterous, ridiculous and indefensible delays.

Thirdly, we need to assuage the fear of Mr. and Mrs. Cordingley's former neighbours. My constituents who live in flats around the flat which was destroyed still do not know why it was destroyed. They are still fearful about the circumstances of the explosion and fearful that such explosions may occur again unless those responsible are taken from the jobs that they are now doing, or that the procedures and equipment are changed. It is not part of my duty, as I have made clear to North Thames Gas, to try to convince my constituents that they are safe when no effort has been made by anybody to convince me that they are safe. It is up to the gas authorities to convince people that they are safe, and the only way that they can do that is by making a clean breast of all that has happened.

Finally, we need answers to the questions that I have raised to do justice to Mr. and Mrs. Cordingley, who before the explosion were looking forward within a year or two to a happy, pleasant, reasonably prosperous and, allowing for their age, a reasonably healthy period of retirement. Instead of that, Mrs. Cordingley is maimed and disfigured. Her husband is not used to doing housework and he is now having to do it. They are faced with a loss of income because he properly retired early to help his wife. Their standard of living has declined and their normal conditions of life have been much reduced.

It is a disgrace that this has happened and that nothing has been done to sort it out. There has been an indefensible catalogue of inaction and incompetence on the part of all the authorities concerned. I hope that the Minster will be able to give some assurances. Above all, I hope that he will use whatever influence there is in the Department to kick and boot around those who have been responsible so that it does not happen again.

1.13 pm

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) has raised an important matter. It was certainly a serious incident and it is right that he should attach importance to it and should want a full analysis of what happened. If this incident had taken place in any other constituency, I am sure that the Member representing it would have taken exactly the same action. I want the hon. Gentleman to understand at the outset that that is strongly my view.

The Government are deeply sympathetic to those who suffered as a result of the explosion and will continue to treat it seriously. They are grateful for the opportunity dial the hon. Gentleman has provided to clarify the issues and to give certain assurances. However, I am sure that the House will understand that I shall need to be circumspect because there is still a possibility of court proceedings.

The explosion occurred, as we have learnt, on 6 October 1981 at Richbell, Boswell Street, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The block is owned by the London borough of Camden. It was constructed in 1949. It is a seven-storey building with a balcony on each storey leading to four flats. A programme of relaying the mains and the external portions of the services in the area adjacent to Richbell was commenced in August 1980. During a survey in March 1981 the gas corporation found that parts of the service pipes in Richbell could not be visually inspected. As the installation was over 30 years old and inaccessible, the corporation decided to install new service pipes and a new meter in each flat. A firm of contractors was engaged to carry out the work and the explosion occurred while it was in progress. The gas appears to have escaped through an uncapped meter control.

Tragically, as we have learnt—the hon. Gentleman rightly dwelt on the personal tragedy—one of his constituents was seriously injured. There was also extensive damage to property and I wish to express my genuine sympathy to the injured and to those who suffered loss. Following the explosion, the British Gas Corporation checked the work carried out on the services, completed it and commissioned the installation.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman's remarks were directed to the Department. It will be for us to give a full account of our part in the matter. However, the hon. Gentleman must appreciate that his principal case is against the BGC and the contractors. I know that he is worried about their handling of the matter, but the corporation's actions and statements are a matter for it. The Government have no responsibility for that. Although I shall ensure that what he says is drawn to the attention of the Gas Corporation, it is a matter for it and I am sure that it will write to the hon. Gentleman as a result of his additional remarks today.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about compensation, but that is exclusively a matter for the courts. His constituent's legal advisers must decide the appropriate action and against whom it should be taken and in due course the courts will decide where liability lies. If liability is established, the damages in personal injury cases will enable substantial compensation to be paid. However, I cannot say whether there is a case for compensation.

I turn now to the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with regard to gas safety and the regulations under which my Department operates. Section 31 of the Gas Act 1972 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations
"for the purposes of securing that the public is so far as practicable protected from any personal injury, fire, explosion or other dangers arising from the transmission or distribution of gas by the British Gas Corporation, or from the use of gas supplied by the Corporation."
The principal regulations in force under those powers are the Gas Safety Regulations 1972. They lay down requirements for the installation of gas pipes, meters and appliances. They also impose requirements on the use of gas. It is an offence to use or permit the use of a gas installation if one knows or has reason to suspect that it is dangerous to do so. A fine of up to £400 may be imposed on summary conviction in respect of any contravention. My Department's gas standards branch at Leicester is responsible to my right hon. Friend for the enforcement of those regulations. It is notified of alleged contraventions in many ways, but in most cases representations are made to the gas standards branch by the British Gas Corporation. Some of those reports arise from gas incidents involving injury to persons or damage to property. However, the great majority of contraventions are discovered by British Gas employees during their day-to-day work.

Under agreed procedures, British Gas reports such cases to my Department, which makes inquiries as necessary when there is a prima facie case for a prosecution under the regulations. However—this is the point that is central to the hon. Gentleman's case and what I have to say about the Gas Standards Branch involvement and the time feature, which I agree is unusual—in cases where a peson has been killed or seriously injured, and where it is known that the police are considering a more serious charge such as manslaughter, my Department's officials do not duplicate inquiries so long as police inquiries are proceeding. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that that is unreasonable. Cases have proceeded in that way in the past satisfactorily.

The Gas Standards Branch in Leicester give the police any assistance that they might require, particularly with regard to the provisions of the gas safety regulations, which are specialist matters. The police have available to them a much wider range of statutes under which they can mount a prosecution, although, with the consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, they can also prosecute under the gas safety regulations. If, after consideration, the police decide not to prosecute, my Department will then consider bringing a prosecution under the regulations in the normal way.

Against that background, I should like to say what happened with regard to this serious incident. On the day after the explosion—as soon as it was reported to the Gas Standards Branch by the British Gas Corporation—my Department's officials contacted the police to inform them of our interest in the matter. A few days later the police confirmed to the Department that they were considering the possibility of a more serious charge. In accordance with the normal practice that I have already outlined, the Department's Gas Standards Branch decided not to pursue its inquiries until the outcome of the police inquiry was known.

The police agreed to keep the Department informed. However, the Department did let the police know the sections in the safety regulations which were likely to apply to this incident in case they wished to consider, as well as the other matters that were being contemplated at that time, the possibility of a prosecution under those regulations.

The Department also received and examined the of North Thames Gas With a View to considering whether there had been a prima facie breach of the regulations. By April, the Department had no record of having received any further advice from the police. Therefore, officials of the Gas Standards Branch initiated further inquiries.

Is it not the case that the telephone call to which the hon. Gentleman is referring occurred only after I had put down a parliamentary question on this matter?

I do not know whether that is so, but it certainly would not surprise me, any more than it would surprise the hon. Gentleman if that were the case.

I am sure that the House will agree that we responded quickly and effectively at the beginning. The matter was left to the police on the understanding that we would be informed about what the police intended to do. As I have already mentioned, the police said that they would keep the Department informed of the progress of their inquiries and of any decision that was made about prosecution.

There was a delay before the Department reopened contact with the police and we have therefore taken action to ensure that the procedures within my Department for following up such cases are revised so that similar delays do not occur again.

Our action was to be triggered by the police contacting us. We have no record of the police having done so. Plainly there comes a time when that can be done on our own motion. That matter has been looked at with great care as a result of what happened.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands how what we were told fits in with the way in which general procedures work and what specific step has now been taken to correct what happened on this occasion.

We ascertained that the police had decided not to take any further action, and, in accordance with normal practice, the Department then took up the case again. That involved a detailed re-examination of the report of North Thames Gas, a visit to the site by experienced gas engineers and the taking of statements from those involved.

During the investigation the Department identified certain minor defects in the installation, which, while not presenting an immediate danger were, in the Department's view, in contravention of certain provisions of the safety regulations. They have been drawn to the attention of North Thames Gas and one of the Department's gas engineers will make a further visit to the site when the remedial work has been done.

I can tell the House that, following the investigation, my Department passed the papers on the Richbell explosion to the Director of Public Prosecutions, where they have been since 8 June, so that he can consider the possibility of bringing a prosecution under the regulations. For that reason I cannot go into more details. I am grateful to the hon. Member for the understanding that he has shown. I want to help him as much as I can for the reasons that I explained at the outset. He is right to want to bring the matter to the house, but there is a limit to some of the things that it would be proper for me to say, either because they are still under investigation or because they might prejudice the position of others.

The hon. Member has properly expressed concern, not only on behalf of the individual constituent who was injured in the explosion, but because he believes that his constituents in Richbell may still be at risk from the new gas services. The responsibility for ensuring that that is not so is for the British Gas Corporation. I am sure that the action that I have outlined and the further visit by one of our gas engineers will assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking all necessary steps to reassure his constituents.

I am sure that the House will understand that it would be improper to describe in any more detail the incident and the action being taken in relation to the possibility of prosecution, since the matter may be the subject of court proceedings. I hope that in what I have been able to say I have given the hon. Gentleman some satisfaction. He has discussed the case with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and he knows that my hon. Friend is prepared to discuss further developments as they occur. He will do his best to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's legitimate inquiries are properly handled and that he receives the response that he deserves.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past One o'clock.