Contract Natural Gas Limited fined £320,000 after pleading guilty to not disconnecting gas supply in New Ferry
This is a report on Contract Natural Gas Limited’s plea and sentence which happened in January 2019. Reporting restrictions were in place until the end of the trial and re-trial of Pascal Blasio to “avoid a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice”.
The Court Usher read out count 4 which was about failing to ensure gas pipe work had been disconnected. The representative for Contract Natural Gas Limited changed the plea to guilty.
At this point reporting restrictions were imposed on reporting the plea or sentence of Contract Natural Gas Limited until the conclusion of the trial of Pascal Blasio.
On the 10th January 2019 (sentencing hearing), the representative for Contract Natural Gas Limited stated that Contract Natural Gas Limited had pleaded guilty to count 4 on the indictment.
At 9.15 pm on the 25th March 2017 the town of New Ferry on the Wirral had been rocked by a huge explosion. A furniture shop at 43 Bebington Road had been completely destroyed, but there had been massive damage in and around the area and the explosion had injured many people. The cause and consequences would be explored in detail during the trial of Pascal Blasio. There had been a huge investigation into the cause and circumstances with input from a large number of people including Merseyside Police, an investigation by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, the Health and Safety Executive and a laboratory in Derbyshire.
The representative for Contract Natural Gas Limited made it clear that the Contract Natural Gas Limited had not been complicit in causing or making a fraudulent claim to NFU Mutual, but the guilty plea was accepted in relation to regulation 16(3)(b) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998. Contract Natural Gas Limited offered no evidence on count 3 of the indictment, but its representative explained that count 3 was a different label placed on the same facts.
Contract Natural Gas Limited’s representative referred to the sentencing guidelines and a brief history of who was supplied gas at the property (which in the past had included Wirral Council).
There was a discussion about confusion between 41 and 43 Bebington Road. The representative answered that their records had been incorrect when the records had been passed to them from a previous supplier.
Until March 2012 Wirral Borough Council had occupied it using it as a careers office (Connexions). On vacation Wirral Borough Council had informed the utility companies including Contract Natural Gas Limited.
It had been empty in 2013 and in 2015 Wirral Borough Council took back possession. There had then been a change of occupier and a new lease not with Wirral Borough Council but with Homes in Style Limited.
Details of all points of gas supply in the UK were held on a database by Xoserve with every gas meter given a meter reference point number. There was no record of any gas supply meter at 41A (a charity shop), no record at 2 Boundary Road (dance studio), no record of a gas supply at 43 and no record of a gas supply meter to Mr Blasio’s shop, despite a live supply of gas. A gas supply meter had been recorded at 41 Bebington Road (Coop Funeral Services) but the supplier was not Contract Natural Gas Limited but Corona Energy. There was a second meter registered to 41 with a MPRN of 78345500.
However this was wrong and gas meter MPRN 78345500 was the gas supply at 43 in relation to Mr Blasio which had been incorrectly recorded as 41. Data and records indicated no gas supply and no meter at Mr Blasio’s furniture shop, but two separate meters at Coop Funeral Services.
A records search on MPRN 78345500 showed that on 22nd August 2012 the meter had been removed from 43 and this had been entered onto the database seven days later.
As to the incorrect and inaccurate data when Contract Natural Gas Limited had taken on the gas supply in 2011, an error had recorded meter 78345500 as at 41 rather than at 43.
After the property had reverted back to Wirral Borough Council in March 2012 Contract Natural Gas Limited had sent out gas bills to 41 (which were sent to the wrong address). At the time it was believed that 43 was unoccupied and there was no response. Due to the outstanding bills instructions were issued to commence the removal of the meter.
A pre disconnection visit was made to 41 as the records were wrong, Coop Funeral Services unsurprisingly had no idea and refused entry. Following the visit a phone call was made by Coop Funeral Services pointing out that that gas supply was to 43, not 41. The Defendant (Contract Natural Gas Limited) had been reminded that the gas supply and meter was at 43 following the pre disconnection visit, yet the database wasn’t updated.
The same person who had carried out the pre disconnection visit went to 43 Bebington Road and found it closed, empty and shuttered up. It would require an unoccupied court order to enable entry to remove the meter. However the warrant now named the Connexions address as 39 as at some stage it had been changed to 39 when it should have been changed to 43.
Maps were shown at this stage of the gas mains supply in the vicinity of the building.
The meter with MPRN 78345500 at 43 Bebington Road was then disconnected and removed on the 23rd August 2012. After it was removed the gas supply service pipe was left with a live supply in situ, but was capped or blanked off.
Despite the meter being removed, the correct address had been failed to be updated on the database, despite the fact that as a condition of their licence all records must be up to date and as accurate as possible.
In January 2013 there was correspondence and emails including through debt collectors chasing payment from Wirral Borough Council which were invoices for a plethora of court fees, the warrant fee and the removal charge for the meter. The invoices were not sent to Wirral Borough Council or even to 43, but to Connexions at 39 so were not just to the wrong person but to the wrong address which caused a lot of puzzlement and head scratching at Wirral Council as they had no idea what was going on.
Count 4 (Regulation 16(3)(b) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 placed a legal duty on the last supplier of gas, where a meter has been removed and not replaced to disconnect the gas pipe.
The meter was removed on the 22nd August 2012 and the last person to supply gas was the Defendant. The regulations placed a duty within 12 months of removal to ensure that the service pipe for it was sealed at both ends.
There was a discussion about National Grid’s (who had recently changed name to Cadent) responsibilities at this point.
A National Grid gas engineer had visited 41 Bebington Road on the 4th June 2013, to be told that no meter had been removed there within the previous year. The serial number of the meter at 41 Bebington Road was inspected and as it was not the same as 78345500, following a search which found no second service at the address (41 Bebington Road) 78345500 was set to “dead” on the Xoserve database as it was believed that the service was no longer providing a flow of live gas and it was believed to be a duplicate record in error.
The Defendant should have ensured the gas supply was disconnected and had failed to amend the records database which did not enable National Grid to attend and carry out disconnection. The representative made representations on the scale of the fine.
There was a long legal discussion about matters that led the explosion. The Defendant’s representative stated that they had agreed to pay £50,000 of the Crown Prosecution Service’s legal costs.
After an adjournment for lunch, the company was fined £320,000 (which would have been £400,000 if not for the guilty plea), costs of £50,000 (as agreed) and the statutory surcharge.
The Company’s representative asked for 6 months to pay the fine.
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